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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:

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.

Ground Level Conditions Poetry

New Year’s Eve: The Big One

December 31, 2015: From Long Beach to Monterey Bay to Mexico and France and Back

I will not likely spend as much time on the road in 2016 as I did in the year that is just ending. On the final day of 2015, it’s difficult to avoid reflection on such a momentous year on a personal level. Back in the decade and a half that I largely spent working as a typesetter, I would have years with one or two events equivalent to those I took part in 2015. In 1985, for instance, Poetry Loves Poetry appeared; in 1993, my spoken word recording from New Alliance Records, Vehemence, was released, and was played on Liza Richardson’s “Man in the Moon” show on KCRW. But I never had a year back then when I spent so much time on the road in the company of so many other poets. It started back in the spring when Pruebas Ocultas was published in Mexico by Bonobos Editores. In late August, I went to Mexico City to read from the book along with my translators, and from there I went to Guadalajara for a panel with Pura Lopez-Colome, and then to San Luis Potosi for a huge poetry festival with poets from Ecuador, Spain, Canada and Israel. I was the only poet from the United States asked to be part of it. In between the publication of Pruebas Ocultas and the poetry tour in Mexico, the gathering of poets I organized for CSU Summer Arts at Monterey Bay took place in July. For two weeks a score of poets from around the state had a chance to work with Juan Felipe Herrera, Cecilia Woloch, Ellen Bass, Douglas Kearney, and Marilyn Nelson. Marilyn gave an extraordinary reading at the beginning of the second week, which Cecilia and I were honored to serve as her co-readers. Juan’s and Douglas’s workshops were especially inspiring.

Two weeks on the road in Mexico and another two weeks in Monterey Bay replaced my usual summer residence in Idyllwild Arts, where I had taught a class in fiction writing for twenty years. The decision to end that portion of my teaching career after a nice round number was not easy. I miss my colleagues at Idyllwild, but the fact that it was time to move on seemed confirmed by my travels to Mexico and Monterey Bay, none of which was more than very tentatively in place when I decided to bow out of Idyllwild after 2014. I couldn’t put my suitcase and passport away, however, once school started, for in late November I went to Dijon, France, to give a plenary talk at a conference on “Modernities.” I want to thank Helene Aji, especially, for her invitation and for the welcome and accommodations provided by Fiona McMahon and Paul-Henri Giraud.

There were incredibly somber moments in the midst of all these travels, however. Linda and I left for France on the day of the notorious terrorist attacks in Paris, and our visit there took place within an inescapable realm of shocked grief. Not long after our return, the terrorist attack in San Bernardino reverberated with similar, astonished dismay. Surely a tipping point has been reached, but this is only to say that those who would harm others who are total strangers see no reason to cease their onslaught, and any hope that my generation might see an end to this madness has now perished. It would appear to be the same case with the insidious disregard for the lives of African-American citizens in this nation. The cold-blooded execution of several African-American youths in the past several years has only seemed to whet the appetite for those who believe that police officers deserve absolute immunity. The death of Tamir Rice is especially egregious and I would urge anyone who can sign a petition to secure more emphatic justice in his memory to do so. If you hesitate to do so, afraid of being placed on a list of suspected dissidents, you are not wrong to feel fearful. But read Marilyn Nelson’s “A Wreath for Emmett Till,” and ask yourself if you would have stayed silent then. If not, speak up now for Tamir Rice.

Finally, I was grateful to be able to put the finishing touches on Cross-Strokes: Poetry between Los Angeles and San Francisco, which Seismicity Editions at Otis College of Art and Design published at the very end of the year. Although Neeli Cherkovski is listed as the co-editor, I was the editor who did the bulk of the work on the book, and it would not have become a finished project without my concerted efforts over the past year and a half. Back in the early summer of 2014, the book was nothing more than a set of completely disorganized computer files that represented the nominations that both Neeli and I had made for poets to be included. In the summer of 2014, I organized the files and began the process of firming up the final table of contents. In the past six months, I spent an incredible amount of time correcting the texts and working with an admirably assiduous book designer, Rebecca Chamlee, to make the book worthy of Seismicity’s booklist. I am proud of this anthology, which serves as a complement to two earlier volumes of Los Angeles poets I edited and published under the imprint of Momentum Press.
This coming summer will be much more quiet, or so I hope. It is the first time that I will have a summer without any teaching or typesetting work taking up my time in well over 30 years. In fact, I can’t recall a summer so open to the chance of simply working on my writing since the summer of 1977. Ever the naughty pessimist, however, I can’t help but mention the extraordinary amount of minor seismic activity that has quivered throughout California the past twelve months. I wouldn’t given anyone better than even money odds about the likelihood of a major (6.2 or greater magnitude) earthquake happening in 2016. Get ready, folks. The drought that is being temporarily allayed is the least of our problems and worries.

I hope, though, we can all ride out the Big One and find ourselves still in each other’s joyful company a year from now. Happy new year to all my dear friends and readers.

Books Poetry

Oriana Ivy — APRIL SNOW


I first met Oriana Ivy at a poetry workshop in Venice. While the ongoing Wednesday night workshop at Beyond Baroque is the most famous of these weekly gatherings, that workshop has been subject to periodic succession movements over the years as various clusters of poets made claims to being the “Venice Poetry Workshop” (as distinct from the Beyond Baroque Workshop). At least two of these splinter groups met at one time or another in the Old Venice Jail facility, which is adjacent to the Old Venice City Hall. The former has been the esteemed home of S.P.A.R.C. (Social and Public Art Resource Center) for many years, while Beyond Baroque moved into the latter in late 1970 and was in full gear as the new year started.

Oriana Ivy was born and immigrated to the United States when she was seventeen. My understanding is that her mother was a scientist. Even though she was a relatively recent arrival to the various scenes in Los Angeles, Oriana’s writing was strong enough that I included her in POETRY LOVES POETRY in 1985. Her first chapbook, APRIL SNOW, was the winner of the New Women’s Voices Prize in Poetry in 2011 (www.finishinglinepress.com). How a poet such as Ilya Kaminski gets fawned over by award committees and Oriana Ivy has to wait longer than a quarter century for a chapbook remains one of many inexplicable travesties in contemporary poetry in the United States.

One of my favorite poems in APRIL SNOW is “Stalin’s Mustache,” which blends together Osip Mandelstamm and Percy Shelley as vatic legislators of the world. In a longer collection, the following poem by Oriana would also have appeared in juxtaposition, as a way of providing an adumbration for the events of 1989:




Since earliest childhood we were told

the red in the Polish flag stood for blood.

Now on the stage, two colossal


bouquets of red gladioli.

In the haze of upward petals,

the balding propagandist blossoms:


Isn’t the Soviet Union

the greatest, the most advanced,

the most democratic country in the world?


He raises his voice: “Let us

salute our brother: Long live

the Soviet Union!” He lifts his arms


like an orchestra conductor,

motioning us to respond with a choral

Long live! I move my lips


in a mute shout,

raising my chin to mime

the final vowel like a howl.


Long live! the political educator

strains at the top of his amplified voice –

along with a squeak


of a few voices from the front row.

I look around: my classmates are

moving their lips without making a sound.


The theater is filled with classes

from several schools –

more than three hundred students.


The propagandist shouts even louder,

Long live the Soviet Union!

Again the sweeping motion of his arms.


This time a stumbling chorus

of six or seven voices.

Once more the educator tries


to rouse us to the correct zeal –

then shrugs – then strides –

then breaks into a run


toward the side door.

The wind of his retreat

barely musses the heavy gladioli.



Lest we be tempted to be smug about the embarrassment of the “balding propagandist,” let us consider how we were asked in 2008 to join in a similar chorus: “Love live Bank of America!” Not enough of us were brave enough to move only our lips. Within that context, those who participated in the Occupy movment deserve even more of our gratitude for having offered some measure of resistance.

As a follow-up to yesterday’s installment, here are two additional pieces I wrote back then.


As Liberals descry a rear-view mirror

And fault a smug, prevaricating Fuhrer,

Conservatives aspire to be more pure

And flense the present for their futures’ cure.



Abundance is redundant

Claim parsimonious pundits:

Let prosperity accrue

From the many to the few.