Tag Archives: Stand Up Poetry

Danny DeVito’s “THE RATINGS GAME” and the October Surprise Debate

Sunday, October 2, 2016

“THE RATINGS GAME” – Danny DeVito’s Minor Masterpiece and the Donald Trump Surprise Debate of October 25

One of my colleagues at CSULB, Charles Webb, has written a score of poems that seem likely to become pedagogical models of “Stand Up Poetry,” a mode he has promoted in several influential anthologies. Webb, however, is not the person who coined the term. Inspired by the title of Edward Field’s collection of poem, “Stand Up, Friend, With Me,” Gerald Locklin and Charles Stetler applied the term to a post-Beat, “reader-friendly” kind of poem that emphasized humor and popular culture. Among Webb’s best known poems is a paean to “low culture” art in which Webb bemoans (in a straight man fashion) his inability to recall the important signifiers of canonical literature and culture, and instead cackles with self-satisfied pleasure as he recalls the art that truly matters to him, which features nothing other than low, gross humor. On the surface, Webb’s rhetoric is beguiling; upon re-reading, one discovers its flaw in leaning too heavily on inductive logic. Nevertheless, it is a charming example of Webb at his best.

The narrator of Webb’s poem is a fringe-niche consumer of mass industrial culture. His protestations of a preference for low culture are dourly undermined by his acknowledgement of the social expectations of his imagined persona as a cultivated individual. While analysis of Webb’s poem calls for taking this ambiguous tension into consideration, the allegiance to low culture that the poem accentuates is at the heart of any media-based target audience. As ripe as that subject might be for comic display within popular culture, few efforts have been truly successful. One exception is Danny DeVito’s “The Ratings Game,” which came out in 1984. It is a minor masterpiece in its satire of corporate culture’s manipulation of the status quo.

The protagonist of “The Ratings Game” is an amateur auteur in the fullest sense of the term. Vic DeSalvo, played by Danny DeVito in his first directorial effort, is a successful businessman who yearns for cultural status, but is rebuffed by the Hollywood crowd. Undeterred by his initial failures, DeSalvo manages to get his cartoon show a slot on a nationally syndicated broadcast schedule. I haven’t seen this movie, which was a cable television project, for over 30 years, and yet I recall with a smile on my face — as wide as that of Webb’s narrator — the moment in which Established Power smirks at Underlings: “Congratulations,” the network executive says to DeSalvo, “your show will premiere on October 10, (pause) the first night of the World Series.”

To put it mildly, DeSalvo knows he is doomed. With bottomed-out ratings, his show will not likely make it to the second month, let alone a second season. DeSalvo won’t give up without a fight, however, especially after his fiancé, Francine (played by Rhea Pearlman), reveals how “ratings” are actually determined. As the victim of sexist politics in the office, she has no qualms about getting revenge, and they set about plotting to humble a system stacked against them.

I mention “The Ratings Game” (which has finally been released on DVD) because the current schedule of debates between presidential candidates includes an evening featuring the alternative choices of Jill Stein and Gary Johnson. The Free and Equal Commission has organized a debate to which all prominent candidates have been invited. The likelihood of Trump and Clinton both showing up for this debate and thereby according minor party candidates an appearance of being on an equal footing is about the same odds as the Chicago Cubs asking me to pitch the first game of the upcoming playoffs.

However, as I wrote this post, Trump’s habitually asymmetrical strategy gave me pause: might not Trump show up? It would be a couple of hours of free publicity in which he could harangue Jill Stein as the “real” Hillary Clinton, the “alternative” who represents the socialist agenda that lurks behind Clinton’s policy-driven campaign. Next to Johnson, of course, Trump would seem like a foreign policy maven, a wonk ne plus ultra. What’s to lose? Well, I suppose that Fox Sports would resent any distraction from one of its crown jewels, but the White House is at stake, and that requires sacrifices from all interested parties, doesn’t it?

By now, of course, you’ve guessed what Trump’s misfortune would be in choosing this “alternative” debate as a surprise outlet for his fulminations. Yes, this debate is scheduled for the first night of the 2016 World Series (October 25). Good luck, Ms. Stein. I can’t wait to see the Cubs finally begin to break the longest drought in American sports.

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.