Tag Archives: Laurel Ann Bogen

Laurel Ann Bogen’s New and Selected Poems

Monday, June 18, 2018

“The Terror to be a Magician”: Laurel Ann Bogen’s Metaurban Self-Portraits in Psychosis in the Produce Department

Midway through the second decade of the 21st century, American poetry written and published in the first decades of the Cold War has rapidly receded into movements or schools, such as the Beats or Confessional poetry, in which the best known examples seem to isolate themselves into a distant cul-de-sac. Indeed, the current century’s difficulties in accommodating the rapid oscillations of post-modernity have relentlessly enlarged the gap between mid-20th century poetry and contemporary verse. Literary criticism itself is largely responsible for generating this disenabling fiction in which a limited set of canonical writers in the Confessional school, born before the end of World War II, has become a self-enclosed pantheon that precludes their successors from redefining the legacy of that school’s poetic progeny.

The Confessional school is often presented as a closed case; actually, not just a closed case, but as a kind of minor sub-plot within post-modern poetry that does merit having a single anthology dedicated to its practitioners. Given the abundance of anthologies that manage to plump out volumes on comparatively smaller subsets, such as feminist avant-garde poetry, this aporia is extraordinarily puzzling, especially given how many of Confessionalism’s first generation have found their way into anthologies during the past thirty years. The assiduous campaign against this school’s alleged limitations seems to have been successful in confining its success to its mid-century insurrection against academic poetry dominated by New Criticism.

This widespread dismissal has genuine consequences, especially for poets on the West Coast who have chosen to work at least some of the time within the Confessional milieu. Even though Laurel Ann Bogen’s Psychosis in the Produce Department was published well over two years ago by Red Hen Press, I have not been able to locate any reviews whatsoever of it. The neglect would seem in part to be due to the discomfort that Confessional poetry still manages to generate. Stephen Burt, for example, notes that the “confessional model has become so predictable …. that it has become something many sophisticated poets and critics avoid or even disparage.” Confessional poetry in recent years, however, is no more predictable than Beat or Language or Feminist poetry; rather, it is the imagined template of sophisticated critics that is predictable.

Before considering Bogen’s volume of poems, therefore, let us examine the template of Confessional poetry that has become fixated in critics’ views as overly predictable. The confessional poem, according to Burt, derives from a quartet of suppositions, including its self-reflective performance as “part cri de Coeur and part diary; it draws contrasts between present and past self; its lack of obvious structural constraints connotes speech from the heart; and it deploys post-Freudian claims about generational succession, sexual attraction, or gender identity … as central to what and how we know and feel.” Nor is Burt alone in this assessment by contemporary critics. As seen in Miranda Sherwin’s preference for “psychoanalytic poetics” over Helen Vender’s term “Freudian lyric,” the general consensus in framing confessional poetry is to assign it a default mechanism of mental crisis, instability, and psychic redemption.

It is the second item in Burt’s checklist that I want to call particular attention to at this point, for it rather sloppily attempts to square the circle of personal consciousness. The “self” that Burt invokes in regards to confessional poetry is not subjected in his account to any interrogation whatsoever, let alone the kind of layered distinctions he makes in examining Terrance Hayes’s poetry. In Hayes’s case, the self becomes inherently deserving of post-modernist critique: “Is the self (whatever that means) a performance? What makes for a good performance, or an authentic one (what that means)? Such questions have generated enough recent scholarly books to weigh down an ocean liner, but they have proved hard to make into good poetry.” If so, these questions were not too hard for Terrance Hayes to take on with efficient playfulness, Burt would argue, and I would agree, but also add that so, too, have a number of poets working in the Confessional mode.

Furthermore, the uses of psychoanalysis and mythic figures as generative imaginative strategies for addressing emotional distress, vulnerability, and trauma are more widespread than has been critically acknowledged. While Bogen’s writing has been primarily categorized as belonging to the “stand up school,” as defined by Charles Harper Webb, her poetry is also an intriguing instance of the hidden heterogeneity of more recent practitioners of the Confessional School. It is in the ways that her poetry goes beyond the Confessional that we will find its most appealing value, though it is in being a permutation that it derives the primary impetus for its longevity.

Within the original poetic domain, Bogen’s title for her most comprehensive collection of poems, Psychosis in the Produce Department: New and Selected Poems 1975 2015 steps on stage with the casual confidence that a mature actress has exuded ever since she was a demurely witty, droll ingénue. As her title suggests, the intensity of mental breakdowns careers throughout the selection. Echoing rather deliberately the psychological travail of the narrator in Allen Ginsberg’s “With Walt Whitman in the Supermarket,” the easy way to categorize Bogen would be to consign her to the confessional bracket, and the book’s title rather flamboyantly – almost flippantly – announces the ordinariness of this debilitating mental condition. Even in the midst of plenty, the title suggests, one can easily dissolve into a state of acute mental distress.

Indeed, there are more than a sufficient number of poems in Psychosis in the Produce Department to stamp Bogen’s union card in the Confessional School. Titles such as “27 Years of Madness,” “The Power Lines Are Down,” “Vulnerable Street,” “Bones Dig This Dream,” “cold cold cold,” “Spankings I’ve Known,” “Doppelganger Redux,” “Guilt,” “I Eat Lunch with a Schizophrenic,” and the mordantly witty “The Virginia Woolf Guide to Rock Collecting” all intimate a coruscating set of self-portrait canvases. However, if a vulnerable candor underscores Bogen’s free verse lyricism, it entails a more rigorous imagination that one might expect from the confessional impetus. In a poem from the 1970s, she confronts the seductive ministrations of institutional psychiatry:

The hospitals were clever

They said: you have the gift
why do you want to destroy it?
And I will tell you now
it is not a gift
to know that words are not your own
to know you can produce
a prism from nothingness
it is a terror to be a magician

The dispossession of words, in this instance, is not meant to serve as a swift detour to the confrontation with language as it has played out in various avant-garde guises since the early 1970s. Rather, it is paradox and metaphor that Bogen summons as emotional states of consciousness aligned with that supreme emotion, surprise, without which all over emotions lose their internal momentum. To be a magician is to have the capacity to conjure both presence and absence.
In Bogen’s vision of the social identity of a poet, this polar paradox of affirmation and negation – “words are not your own” // “ a prism from nothingness” – goes to an extremity of absence-presence in “Live Steam at 8:40 a.m.”:

In this poem there are no words
all language has stopped
but the pumps boil
live steam
live team
live steam at 8:45

Heart poach / we rip at skin
alone and without noise
to get at the beat
the color
and where the words are
but this is a poem
where there are no words
and all the colors are extinct
rising like steam
that hisses in our throats
like wordless lies

In this poem the words sizzle
and evaporate

in this poem the words rise crazy

In this poem ourbodies ache
our fingers can nurder us
but even though we fear death
we offer ourselves to each other
as if the muscle and breath
of our bodies can also heal

This poem cradles in its palm
those things that cannot be said

It asks that you touch this page.

The deictic accentuation of “Live Steam at 8:45 a.m.” is far from the only poem in Psychosis in the Produce Department that pushes through the familiar boundaries of Confessional poetry and suggests that other discourses are at work, including the performative self-transformation of an imagined self within a specific urban environment. Among the poets who both live in Los Angeles and frequently perform their poems in a manner befitting the city’s flaunted ambiance, Laurel Ann Bogen stands out for the profuse invocation of her milieu as a trampoline for metaphors. It is the city’s incandescent awareness of itself as the producer of the individual’s theatricality that gives her poems a haunting plasticity. As in the case of that expert witness of flaneurship, J. Alfred Prufrock, Bogen is on very familiar terms with the significant role that fantasy plays in reassuring one’s fallibility, and how the dialogue between absence and presence coils and recoils; the erasure of intimate revelation by a voice “at home in the shadows” continuously palpitates in her poems.

In whose dreams will these stars shimmer
100 light years from now?
Their blown-up images snipped
of imperfections – the errant mole,
an ingrown hair, when paste
does not pass for diamonds.

Confined by fame, Pilates and exfoliation,
tucked in canyons, behind gated walls,
some corner the market on chihauhuas
others collect bags of kudos.
They tell me Rodeo Drive is a state of mind.

As for mine,
it skims along
Hollywood Boulevard like a chauffeur.
From the back seat
I hear my voice
at home in the shadows –
I don’t want to sleep yet, Bogen,
Drive.

I can see and not be seen – invisible to a world
in which I was born. Now you see
me, now you don’t.

If the first half of the poem critiques both the illusions of immortality and the limitations of rewards and public recognition, the second half savors both the self-determined control and the pleasure of evasion. The poem anticipates the sleep that will bring dreams that are no more than “a state of mind.” The iconic street itself, with all its quotidian tawdriness, promises a more substantial cinematic arousal in which the narrator can embolden one’s imaginary biography. If Bogen’s poems concern themselves with the resilient vulnerability of her self-consciousness, they do so with a deliberate display of the consequences to the singular identity.

Funny how failure and falling
sound alike – the firings failing
and falling pling pling pling
in my brain
my managed care brain
my climate control brain
That fiction and fission
sound alike is funny
this friction and fiction
sound alike, ha-ha.

The final two parts of this eight part poem both point to the endless present tense of self-portrait work in an epiphora of apparent singularity.

The friction of my life
against my life is my life.

The fission of my life
despite my life is my life.

The singularity of “my life” is deceptive, though, for it is always already splitting into the fissures of other lives and other imagined roles, including that of the quintessential Los Angeles figure, the private detective, or as Bogen stamps her calling card: L.A. Bogen, Detective Supremo:

My very name
rolls on the tongue
like an apertif
or a recalled cheese
an open parenthesis of mayhem
on the make
in the sulky afternoon
of Los Angeles

The “private surveillance” she offers the reader, however, is that of the guidance that leads to unexpected encounters:
And suddenly
the bougainvillea greet you
like a happy extortionist

and it’s Cinco de Mayo
everywhere you look
as I melt into crowds
just one step behind you.

In this instance, the poet enables the reader to see the possibility of reconciliation between the self and the things of the world. The bougainvillea’s audacity is that it demands we surrender the “cherished image” that the “hardened arm” so deliberately clings to and experience the flowering in and of itself as the holiday of independence from self-dependency. It is not “crowds” of people that the Detective Supremo flows into, but crowds of meaning.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this collection is the number of poems that have little to do with any personal crisis. Bogen’s ability to distance herself as the author or even the protagonist of the poems would seem to run counter to Confessional poetry’s privileging of the first person pronoun. Indeed, even though there is a steady undercurrent / groundswell of references to the typical topics of confessional poetry such as guilt, corporal punishment, suicide, etc., Bogen’s poetry uses these topics as a means of grounding the transformation she has yearned for all the while, a transformation that can only be fully accounted for and comprehended if one embeds Confessional poetry within the discourse of the feminist poetry of the 1970s.

In thinking of the development of feminist awareness in the 1970s, when Bogen was first writing, publishing, and reading her poems in public, one must remember that group activities such as consciousness-raising were an important – indeed, crucial – ritual in breaking free of patriarchal domination. To read poets, born after World War II, who aligned themselves with the Confessional movement without emphasizing a feminist context is to oversimplify their literary project. As Alan Williamson has pointed out, “confessional poetry – almost from the moment that unfortunate term was coined – has been the whipping boy of a half a dozen newer schools.” Or instead of “whipping boy,” should we say “nasty woman,” which might clarify that point of the attacks on confessional poetry. Feminist poetry was the single area of poetic activity in the 1970s, but in poetry’s politics, it would not have been acceptable to cast aspersions on feminist agency. Dismissals of confessional poetry, however, were far more palatable, and accomplished a severance of the links between confessional and feminist, thereby reducing the power of continuity within the critical discourse.

In a poem such as “I Dream the Light of Reason II,” Bogen demonstrates that her confessional poetry has not confined her imagination to the genre of memoir-in-verse. As if dealing from a deck of cards to a table full of patriarchal gamblers, each face card demands to be played, “as it lays.”

The Reasonable Woman is a hope chest, a locked cabinet.

The Reasonable Woman is pleasant enough.

The Reasonable Woman is the converse of sex.

The Reasonable Woman is a durable good, a sound diagnosis.

The Reasonable Woman is a subordinate clause.

The Reasonable Woman is childproof, although Heidi is already up to her knee.

The Reasonable Woman is a skillet, a war bond.

The Reasonable Woman is a fugue heard on the intercom.

The Reasonable Woman is a graph of stock options, the percentage of return.

The Reasonable Woman is open to suggestion.

The Reasonable Woman is a string bean, a cauliflower, a field of potatoes.

The Reasonable Woman is a packet of Alka-Seltzer in the Accounts Payable file.

The Reasonable Woman is considering bankruptcy.

The Reasonable Woman is a stacked heel, a running shoe.

The Reasonable Woman is a pair of pantyhose in the bathroom sink.

The Reasonable Woman is fat free.

The Reasonable Woman is a shadow of herself.

Why would The Reasonable Woman become unreasonable?

Bogen’s sardonic titular character enumerates the options and expectations imposed on women as a collage list of grievances and conditions that can have but one outcome. To be “unreasonable” would be to make herself the primary clause of a sentence; it would mean that self-definition takes place in a social economy activated by a contract not dependent on war bonds, stock options, and the economic repression of bankruptcy.

The remote chance of success in this metamorphosis has been obvious from the start of Bogen’s calculations. In an early poem from the late 1970s, “The Disappearing Act,” the anonymous female narrator admits that:

women are such fools
I am like those fools
with my shackled independence
tunnel vision
of soiled diapers
and dishes

For this narrator, the choice to become otherwise will require the capacity to laugh at the outcome in choosing to be an author:

a pen to save me from the cold
my wits
forced autonomy

Yes, there is something to be said for farce

Nevertheless, Bogen reminds us of the power within each person’s grasp to confront these velleities and use the symbolic power she invokes in “The Red Pencil” and to start anew, even if crossing that boundary requires the surrender of everything marked with inextricable sentiment:

My fingers still close
around red pencils
still move blindly
across paper
canceling time and recrimination
like an exile returning without baggage.

Bogen’s poetry is unlikely to get the full measure of attention it deserves, but that could easily be said of a thousand working poets in this country right now. That it will not receive even a minimally sufficient recognition is more dismaying. Nevertheless, the work will find its own intriguing path in the years to come. Bogen has produced a body of work over a forty year period that has a vibrato of tonal consistency while being able to look into more than the mirror of her own self-consciousness, and the poems taken as a whole shimmer on the tongue of a reader’s memory unlike any other aftertaste. The difficult trek of a mind and body at odds with each other resolves in a quiet advice:

The unopened gift is still a gift. It is given like a forecast or traffic report – backgound to common cash and carry or extraordinary good fortune. There’s a high pressure front ahead: A hand is offered.
Take it.

Bill Mohr / Summer, 2017 / Long Beach, CA
(Accepted for publication in Poetry Flash a year ago. Printed in my blog out of frustrated impatience.)

(Note: An earlier version of this review was presented as a paper at a panel on poetry organized by Steven Gould Axelrod at the PAMLA conference in Pasadema, CA, in October, 2016. My thanks to those who attended and made comments and suggestions.)

The Southern California Poetry Festival

Saturday, September 10, 2016

THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA POETRY FESTIVAL — Long Beach Renews Its Compact with Poetry

I have lived and worked in Long Beach, California the past ten years, and while there are a few local reading series, such as the one at Gatsby Books and another recent start-up by liz gonzalez, I usually have to head north to Beyond Baroque or the Armand Hammer to attend a reading. Due to my workload at CSU Long Beach, however, and the age of the vehicle I drive, I have a limited amount of time I can spend on the road. Fortunately, in recent years, I have been able to use my position as a member of the English Department at CSU Long Beach to bring over a dozen poets to campus, and I am grateful for the generosity of these poets in accepting a very minimal honorarium.

This weekend, though, the Southern California Poetry Festival is taking place in Long Beach, and I hear that the event is sold out for both days. I myself wish that I could have attended at least one or two of the events, but putting in a request for a ticket has been at the bottom of my “to do” list. With the exception of a lovely, but all too brief visit with Larry and Nancy Goldstein, and the dozen or so hours given to self-contemplation during the UCLA Oral History interviews conducted by Jane Collings, this past summer was devoted to improving the living situation of my 94-year-old mother. The past eight weeks have been especially consumed with that task, and there is no indication of a let-up in the challenges posed by her deterioration. My mother may well recuperate and regain her footing to enjoy the upcoming birth of her first great-grandchild, but I suspect the hard work of being among the very old is even more daunting than she anticipated.

My sister, Joni, flew to the United States from her home in Israel about a month ago to lend considerable assistance, and this was her second trip here to help out since the late spring. Of our mother’s half-dozen offspring, we are the pair most currently involved as advocates of her care, as well as the ones most directly giving her solace and nurture. If my blog has lagged at times over the past three years, it is not just the need to give my students the attention they deserve that has caused my absence from posting. My mother has been steadily declining since about 2008, but she has stubbornly resisted acknowledging the encroaching fallibility of old age. She only gave up her driver’s license shortly after turning 90. She had driven over 70 years without ever getting in a single automobile accident, not even one caused by the egregious neglect of another driver. I have to give her high marks for quitting while she had a perfect record in that regard.

The closest I will get to the Southern California Poetry Festival, therefore, will be having Laurel Ann Bogen stay over tonight with Linda and me in Long Beach. Laurel arrived earlier this afternoon and has gone off to a movie with Linda to give me some time to read and prepare for classes. I just finished Faulkner’s “Spotted Horses,” which I will teach on Monday with the same pleasure with which I read it once again.

I especially regret not being able to hear Jax NTP read this weekend. Jax is a graduate of the CSULB MFA program and I have been delighted to see that she has continued to write and to start getting her work published in magazines such as Larry Smith’s on-line edition of Caliban magazine. I also would have enjoyed hearing the panel discussion on the Poetics of Southern California, featuring Marilyn Chin, Suzanne Lummis. Luis J. Rodriguez, and Ralph Angel, and moderated by David Ulin. In addition to Laurel Ann Bogen, other poets who will be reading this weekend include Gail Wronsky, Robin Coste Lewis, Mike Sonksen, Douglas Kearney, Griselda Suarez, Amy Uyematsu, Paisley Rekdal, Billy Burgos, Charles Harper Webb, Nicelle Davis, Frank X. Gaspar, Brendan Constantine, Sarah Vap, Judy Kronenfeld, and Amy Gerstler. The only scheduled poet who I have heard read before and whose work is not particularly interesting is Henri Cole. Any festival that can have such a high ratio of interesting, vital poets is a major success. I hope all who attend enjoy the weekend as much as I would have, should I have been free.

Laurel Ann Bogen — “Wings That Which Takes Flight”

When Charles Harper Webb was putting together his first anthology of Stand Up poets, one of his leading choices as a representative figure was Laurel Ann Bogen, whose performances of her poetry over the past forty years have made her a legend in Los Angeles poetry. Along with Linda Albertano and Suzanne Lummis, she has also recited her poems as part of the poetry performance ensemble, Nearly Fatal Women. Her new collection of poetry is a retrospective of her work, “PSYCHOSIS IN THE PRODUCE DEPARTMENT,” which will be officially published by Red Hen Press in April, 2016.

I have obtained her permission, as well as the consent of producer and director Doug Knott, to post a film adaptation of one of her poems, “Wings That Which Takes Flight.” Bogen’s voice is heard in the film, though she does not appear in it.

Put Your Ears On: poetry videos

Monday, February 8, 2016

In the late 1980s, poet and actor Harry Northup asked me to take over a poetry reading series he had started at a coffee house on Melrose Avenue called Gasoline Alley. Running a weekly series halfway across town from where I lived in Ocean Park was not something I wanted to undertake alone, and I only agreed to be Harry’s successor because Phoebe MacAdams said that she would share the job. This was not the first series I had run; a decade earlier I had been in charge of the reading series at Intellectuals & Liars Bookstore in Santa Monica. After running the series for two years, I realized that very good readings were not being recorded at all. In fact, a lot of the writing in Los Angeles was not being documented on film or on tape in any way. It was about that time that cable television was establishing itself as a major alternative to the traditional format of television broadcasting; in order for cable franchises to make inroads, they had to make concessions that the major networks had long taken off of any negotiating table. One concession to the customers who had to accept the exclusive domination of the cable franchise system in their neighborhood was to provide a public access channel and studio space with which to make programs for broadcasting.

I decided to sign up for a couple of classes at Century Cable in Santa Monica that would enable me to become a producer of a show that focused on Los Angeles poetry. Starting in 1990, I hosted a program called “Put Your Ears On,” which featured poets such as Lee Hickman, Harry Northup, John Thomas, Bob Flanagan, Scott Wannberg, Jim Krusoe, Ellen Sander, Laurel Ann Bogen, and Richard Garcia. I have just posted on YouTube several of these programs.

“Substitute Teacher” – Bill Mohr – YouTube Link

Ball of Tension – Bill Mohr – YouTube Link

“My Turtle’s Passport” – Bill Mohr – YouTube Link

HARRY E. NORTHUP — REUNIONS

L.A. Poets: 1950 – 2013

Monday, December 9, 2013

Laurel Ann held her annual holiday party for her workshop students and a few of her oldest friends yesterday. Dylan Thomas’s recording of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” regaled us as a ritual opening of the occasion that never wears out the jostling oscillations of its lyric impetus. This year, I heard how the words “distant” or “distance” appear several times in the story, which made the final chord of “close and holy darkness” all the more resonant.

Towards early mid-afternoon, when many of her guests had departed with their “secret santa” gift exchange (Amelie Frank being the happiest of that cluster, and Thom almost equally delighted), Laurel Ann asked if I had heard the news about Suzanne’s book of poetry. “You mean her book that Red Hen’s putting out a couple years from now?” “No,” said Laurel. “Suzanne won the Blue Lynx poetry prize and her book will be out in September.” I was delighted to hear this news, as I knew from a phone conversation with Suzanne how much a full-length book was needed as a way of clarifying her distinctive blend of “stand up” and “noir” poetics. I first heard of Suzanne shortly after she arrived in Los Angeles. She wrote to Intellectuals & Liars Bookstore in Santa Monica and asked for a reading, but the store was closing up. I don’t remember at this point where I first heard her read, but her poems impressed me immediately and she easily earned a spot in “Poetry Loves Poetry” (1985).

I hope that “Open 24 Hours” secures some significant and much deserved critical attention for Suzanne’s poems. One problem will be that reviewers will be unlikely to have a copy of her first full-length book, “In Danger,” to use as a point of comparison. Any book that costs over $30 to buy a used copy of on Amazon is obviously out of print, so unless a reviewer is living near one of the 85 libraries in the United States that have a copy of it, she or he is going to be at a wretched disadvantage in calculating the importance of Suzanne’s new volume.

The lack of willingness on the part of many libraries (including CSU Long Beach’s) to sustain any semblance of interest in contemporary poetry remains one of the great scandals of American culture. The reality is that many living writers have better personal libraries of contemporary poetry than most public libraries. One can only hope that Suzanne’s book get enough attention to merit a second and third printing and thereby ends up on enough private bookshelves to make future reviews of her poetry more knowledgeable about its trajectory. The sad truth is that I just checked “World Cat” and it does not appear that Lynx House has any more luck in getting its titles by poets into libraries than Heyday Books. Lou Lipsitz, whose early book “Cold Water” remains one of my favorites from 40 odd years ago, had a recent title come out from Lynx House, “If This World Falls Apart”; only 88 libraries pop up on the World Cat listing.

Laurel graciously allowed Linda and me to make use of her apartment as a way-station during the late afternoon. Mel Weisburd had invited me to attend his presentation at Beyond Baroque yesterday, which had its starting time inexplicably moved from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. (Even more odd was how Michael C. Ford’s event with Phoebe MacAdams and Renny Golden found itself upstairs at the same time.) Despite the late start, Mel’s slide show attracted an audience of about 30 people, not all of whom were close to his age. Of the younger people who heard off-hand comments about Bert Meyers’s tendency to borrow people’s books without permission, I wish to thank Robert Herrick for introducing himself to me in the Beyond Baroque bookstore, just after I purchased a copy of Stefi Weisburg’s “The Wind-Up Gods.” He mentioned having gone to Susan Wiggins’s acupuncture clinic as a result of reading about it in my blog. This is the first time that I’ve actually had a sense that someone I didn’t know was actually making use of this late-blooming foray into an electronic diaspora. I was delighted to hear Stefi read Bert Meyers’s poem, “L.A.,” which remains a classic of urban remonstration. Most of Mel’s talk covered ground that was very familiar to me, though I had never seen many of the photographs he showed. It was a pleasure to hear Gene Frumkin’s work talked about with affection and respect and I only wish there had been time to talk more about Alvaro Cardona-Hine.

Yesterday was the 33rd anniversary of John Lennon’s death. For some reason, I never thought about the overlap of the date (December 8) with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which was regarded as a holy day of obligation in my childhood religion, Roman Catholicism. It’s a mark of how difficult it is to free oneself from early temporal cycles in that I almost always think of that religious holiday when 12/8 rolls around. It’s Lennon’s death, though, that remains a wound far more profound that the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers.

Linda and I drove home as soon as it was over, and we were both grateful that traffic was flowing well, since even so, it was past 11 p.m. by the time we turned on the heat to warm up the house before we quickly fell asleep. We had encountered over 60 years worth of poetic history, including the up-to-the-minute developments, and we were grateful for our accommodations, transient as they might be.

 

 

Wanda Coleman; Academic Canon Formation

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

I am still in a state of begrudging acceptance that Wanda Coleman is dead. I can close my eyes and still see her at Beyond Baroque’s first site on West Washington Boulevard reading Garcia Lorca’s poem, “Green. I want you so much, green.” The Los Angeles poets had gathered to read their favorite poems by other poets and no one tipped their hands about their choices. Wanda’s choice was the most delightful one in an evening of splendid recitals.

Laurel Ann Bogen called last night and informed me that a memorial service for Wanda is planned for Sunday, January 19, 2014, at 2 p.m. at the Church in Ocean Park on Hill Street in Santa Monica.

*

Today, I am going to post what I had originally planned to insert as my entry on the day that I found out about Wanda’s death.

In my book, Holdouts, I cite Brother Antonius’s comment that that the East Coast is the canon of judgment and the West Coast represents the canon of creativity. That not much has changed since Brother Antonius (William Everson) proposed that binary was made clear to me when I was visiting Lynn McGee in Brooklyn a little over a month ago; one morning she went through her book shelves and pulled a couple dozen volumes for me to read while she went and visited a very dear friend who was in the hospital.

D. Nurske’s A Night in Brooklyn and Dean Kostos’s Rivering were the two books I’d recommend the most enthusiastically out of all the books I looked at. I have yet to get my own copies, so I can’t quote from them, but they were far better than most of the work cited and praised in Lisa Russ Spaars The Hide-and-Seek Muse, which was one of the books I spent a fair amount of time perusing. Part of the problem with Spaars’s evaluation of contemporary American poetry is that she has accepted the restrictions of her job as a reasonable compromise because it rewards her with social status within the critical realm.

“My only charge was to write about current compelling poetry for readers who are intelligent and interested in poetry but who might not necessarily be poets. The only other stipulation made by the Chronicle was that I consider for presentation poets with some sort of university or other higher education affiliation and/or who publish with a college or university press” (Spaar 11). It is the “only other stipulation” that is the central problem. In submitting to that requirement, she has announced that any poet who lives outside the domain of her employer is (by implication) someone whose writing is not compelling enough to deserve the attention of intelligent readers.

Spaar’s attitude has a term in the locker rooms of competitive athletes: trash talk. Teams will often use this kind of commentary as motivation to make the extra effort even when they are exhausted from a long season of practice and performance. Her willingness to dismiss a significant number of poets from the conversation about American poetry is not new. I met all too many academics in the 1970s who were not interested in the poets I was publishing because neither they nor I had any university affiliation.

The consequences of Spaar’s attitude lead directly to a purging of the accessible canon from the professional conversation of those who shape the anthologies used in college classrooms. As a result, students have little chance at an early stage of their development to read work that originates outside the confines of academic discourse. The dismaying part of Spaar’s and the Chronicle’s smug discrimination is not just that the poems of Scott Wannberg and Marisela Norte are not accounted for, but that their social value as cultural workers is left by the wayside.

Spaar does not even have the grace to admit in her introduction to the book that her willingness to accede to the Chronicle’s cultural immigration policy poses a predicament. I would be more in a mood to grant her some critical amnesty if she had at the least said something to the effect that her employer’s restriction would have played out like this in the early 1990s, when the late Wanda Coleman won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize: “I’m sorry, Ms. Coleman, I cannot speak up for your writing. You are not published by a university press. Not only that, you do not have a B.A., let alone a M.F.A. Surely you understand your place in our society.”

I suppose the rules that Spaar ends up affirming as intellectually justifiable guidelines make sense when one realizes that her end goal is to be able to determine who deserves top billing in the corporate world of poetry writing. It takes slightly over two hundred pages to get to the key sentence, but Spaar’s not been doing all this reading and writing just to turn intelligent readers into committed fans of contemporary poetry. Rather, every academic critic must anoint a poet laureate; otherwise, one risks not being taken seriously. Spaar’s nomination? “Charles Wright is arguably the most significant, original poet writing in America” (Spaar 202). She’ll need more than a Chronicle article to prove that “arguably,” but it would almost be beside the point within her realm. The “blurb” has been written and has the credentials of academic citation.

All of this is not to say that I dislike the poets Spaar’s column has chosen to write about, such as Debra Allbery, Jill Bialosky, Alison Seay, Joanna Klink, Brian Teare, Ravi Shankar, Mary Szybist, Larissa Szportuk, Mary Ann Samyn, Srikaat Reddy, L.S. Klatt, Paul Legault, and Amy Neman. Of this list, I know and admire Brian Teare’s and Kate Daniels’s work and intend to take a close look at several others on this list whose work I am not yet as familiar with as I should be.

For the record, here are some of the other books I spent some time reading at Lynn’s apartment:

Jan Beatty – The Switching / Yard – University of Pittsburgh

Amy Lemmon – Saint Nobody (Red Hen)

Gerry La Femina – Notes for the Novice Ventriloquist

Joseph Millar – Blue Rust (Carnegie Mellon)

Nance Van Winckel – Pacific Walkers

Ann Lauinger – Persuasions of Fall

Elizabeth Haukaas – Leap (Texas Tech, 2009)

Kate Light – The Laws of Falling Bodies

 

Every one of these books had stronger moments than the prosaic efforts of Eamon Grennan, whose collection, Out of Sight, was very disappointing. His poems have little sense of efficient narrative and dramatic construction; his use of detail needs much more compression if his poems are ever to attract the enduring attention of readers. When Lynn returned from visiting her friend, I showed her a poem in Grennan’s book that required all of two minutes of attention to improve. Rarely has a supposedly mature poet needed so badly the firm hand of a devoted editor.

Wanda Coleman (1946-2013)

November 23, 2013

I was driving to my sister-in-law’s home in Thousand Oaks this morning to celebrate my mother-in-law’s birthday when Linda’s cell phone rang. It was Laurel Ann Bogen and I could tell from the tone of Linda’s voice that Laurel was giving her very bad news. “I’ll tell Bill as soon as we get to my sister’s house,” Linda said, and I knew for certain that the news must involve one of my poet friends. By now, anyone who is reading this blog will probably know that Wanda Coleman died yesterday (Friday, November 22, 2013), at the age of 67. Within two hours of hearing the news from Laurel, who had received a call from Austin Straus earlier this morning, a short obituary was in the on-line edition of the Los Angeles Times; later that afternoon, I read a tribute to her by Michael Lally in his blog. I didn’t get home until after 7 p.m., so I am only now getting a chance to record some of my memories of Wanda, who was one of the first poets I was to publish on a regular basis back in my early days as an editor and publisher.

I don’t actually remember the first time I met her, but by the time I published her for the first time in Momentum magazine, she had also read in the reading series I was in charge of at the Century City Playhouse on Pico Boulevard. The first issue of my magazine, Momentum, had come out in the spring, 1974, and among the manuscripts to come in for consideration for the summer issue was a poem entitled “Mad Dog Black Lady, Frothing” by Wanda Coleman. I’m not certain if this was her first published poem. According to the Poetry Foundation’s website entry on her, she had had a short story published in 1970, but her contributor’s note to the second issue of Momentum mentioned nothing about previous publications. Two years later, the only magazines she listed for her credits were Bachy, Mt. Alverno Review, and issues two and four of Momentum. In other words, Lee Hickman, Michael C. Ford and I seem to have been the only editors in the United States willing to speak up for a thirty-year-old African-American poet in Los Angeles. Fortunately, our support proved enough to help convince John Martin, the publisher of Black Sparrow Press, to publish a chapbook of her poems in 1977. Two years later, Martin published a full-length collection, the title poem of which had first appeared in Momentum magazine in 1974, and she slowly began to attract an audience outside of Los Angeles.

Wanda went on to win several prizes and awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. She never got the critical acclaim she deserved, however. I once asked Aldon Nielsen why Wanda Coleman did not get more attention and he responded, “Wanda is a difficult case.” Our conversation was cut short by the need for each of us to get to the next panel, but I hope some day to have a chance to hear Aldon elaborate on that response. I suspect that some of the problem remains rooted in the complex tangle of race-sex-class-genre-regionality that I quoted Wanda as saying about her predicament as a writer in Holdouts:

My poverty level steadily climbs. I pay blood for everything. Open my pages and read my bleed: the essence of racism is survival; the primary mechanism, economics. The power to have is the power to do. I, black worker “womon” poet angelena, disadvantaged first by skin, second by class, third by sex, fourth by craft…., fifth by regionality.

(“Clocking Dollars,” African Sleeping Sickness, 1990. 218)

 

Any one of these disadvantages could well overwhelm a poet who had less determination than Wanda. If she found comrades in Los Angeles, it was in large part because determination was about all we had in our favor. She stood out, though, not only for her indefatigable commitment, but for her confidence that the scene she was part of was destined for eventual greatness.

“Up at Lee’s new apartment on Griffith, back in the early 80s, we watch the first documentary video tape of our maturing literary scene – another failed attempt to get any documentation on the new Southern California bards on Public Broadcasting. Before leaving I tell Lee that one day those video tapes, and the poets on them, will be very important. That we’re the generation. Like Hemingway and Gertrude, like Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury, like Henry (Miller) and Anais (Nin), Kerouac and Ginsberg. We’re a group a movement a happening. I’m not bragging, I’m describing what I believe, the place where I’ve invested my future. Lee buries his hands deep in his pockets and goes into thoughtful silence as he walks me to my car. The night is clear, the stars twinkle, I can see the observatory from where we stand.

“I’ve never thought of us quite that way, Wanda.”

I’m surprised and not sure I believe him. I’d always assumed Lee had more ego. My laughter fills the street. “Thank about it Lee,

we’re literary L.A., baby.”

(Native in a Strange Land, 1996, 114)

If “literary L.A.” began to attract the attention of critics such as Julian Murphet, it was largely because Wanda Coleman’s writing was never less than utterly honest and candid. At the same time, her bluntness did not mute the underlying lyricism of her vision. I never tired of hearing Wanda read her poems. Did I say “read”? Her words lifted off the page with a splendid, passionate intonation that no one else I’ve ever heard can possibly match. Like all the great musicians, nothing undulates quite like the “live” performance. I am so fortunate, Wanda, that I got to hear you read so many times. How is it that I think you hear me write those words? I’ll type them out again: I am so fortunate, Wanda, that I got to hear you read so many times. In suddenly realizing I’m on the verge of needing the requital of a third line, I wonder if perhaps this is what is meant by American blues.

Two Theater Companies in Los Angeles

September 22, 2013

TWO THEATER COMPANIES IN LOS ANGELES

When I moved to Los Angeles, I was more interested in theater than poetry. The most important theater company in the city back then was the Company Theater, located on Robertson Boulevard south of Olympic Boulevard. This troupe of actors and actresses understood better than anyone else in Los Angeles how to empower the “empty space” that Peter Brooks had proposed as the only sine qua non for theater. They also fit the prevalent pattern of being the senior segment of young people who were revising cultural expectations for avant-garde activity. Although the category of “baby boomers” gets more frequently cited in this period, the cultural reality of the 1960s and the first year or two of the 1970s was that young people born between 1940 and 1945 were the primary instigators of alternative artistic communities. One of leading actors in the Company Theater, for instance, was Gar Campbell, who was born in 1943 (11/9/43), just a few days after Sam Shepard (11/5/43).

It’s my understanding that Campbell went to the University of Southern California, where he met most of the people with whom he would go on to create the Company Theater, after which he founded and directed plays at the Pacific Resident Theater. The USC connection with the Company Theater goes past the undergraduate terms of its founding members. Laurel Ann Bogen may have been the first poet in Los Angeles to have seen the troupe, since she says they returned to campus to take part in an orientation week presentation in the fall of 1967. USC wanted to showcase the up-and-coming troupe as an example of the intrepidity of their recent graduates and Bogen’s life-long foray in poetry’s underground probably was kindled by the celebratory energy of Company Theater; Bogen herself became involved with the group in the second half of the 1970s, founding the Los Angeles Poets’ Theater at their venue as a way of trying to revive their depleted circumstances.

Although I attended and enjoyed the undulant sensuality of their early signature rite of passage, “The James Joyce Liquid Memorial Theater,” the play that hurled an image into my permanent definition of theater was “The Emergence.” Several characters who seemed to be jovial versions of the knight in Bergman’s “Seventh Seal” were off on a quest: suddenly the theater went dark. When the lights came up, we in the audience could barely see the actors stretched out on their backs on the floor of the stage, the backlit tips of their boots protruding past a long, slightly curved board that was as far downstage as possible. The heads of each character were tilted up off the stage floor; each character peered “down” at us, each of whom in the small theater (which perhaps held 90 people) had a profound sense that suddenly we were at the bottom of a deep well, and that what the actors were seeing were these odd characters peering back at them with awkward expectation of being recognized as exactly what we were: illuminated, puzzled beings, tussled into their story. Never before, and never quite to that extent since, have I felt as if the audience was so profoundly integrated into the mise-en-scene.

The Company Theater went on to produce a considerable number of plays, especially by Michael McClure, with whom later I would have the privilege of studying at Padua Hills. One of the twenty most startling performances I have ever seen in any theater was by Gar Campbell, whose enactment of the mania of “Spider Rabbit” at the Company Theater on Robertson Blvd. still reverberates in my mind. One of the other plays the Company staged at their original digs was Lance Larsen’s “The Hashish Club,” which was derived from Theophile Gautier’s “Le Club des Hachichins” (1846). I saw the play before it moved to New York and had a very brief run at the Bijoux Theater in January, 1975. Gar Campbell, Lance Larsen, Dennis Redfield, Jack Rowe and Michael Stefani comprised the cast. The one-sheet program for the production in Los Angeles prominently acknowledges Trish Soodik as the person whose idea of an adaptation was the original impetus. Soodik was a very fine and courageous actress who was brilliant in a production of McClure’s The Grabbing of the Fairy. Soodik died a couple years ago and you can still read the blog of her final months. Her first husband, novelist and scriptwriter Henry Bromell, also recently died. In addition to acting, Soodik was herself a playwright. I regret not having a chance to see her play, “The 60s,” at the Pacific Resident Theater on Venice Boulevard.

I can’t recall the specific reasons that the Company Theater found itself with an open enough schedule to sublet its venue, but a theater troupe that had started in Hermosa Beach in the late 1960s found refuge on Robertson Boulevard in the early seventies. The Burbage Theater Company, headed up by Sal Romeo, had run into conflicts with the local police in Hermosa Beach and given up its venue rather than endure harassment for putting on plays such as Rochelle Owens’s Futz. Finding another theater to work in was less than easy, and so it eventually borrowed the Company Theater’s space for a production of Paul Foster’s Tom Paine. The Burbage also staged Ionesco’s Exit the King for a brief run at the Company Theater. Theater company rarely thrive as houseguests, however, and fortunately the Century City Playhouse on Pico Boulevard became available for a lease. At that point I joined the Burbage as it slowly pulled together its first production in Rancho Park, The Devils.