Tag Archives: Wanda Coleman

Austin Straus: In His Youth (the recollection of a close friend)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Austin Straus: In His Youth (the recollection of a close friend)

A little over a month ago, a letter showed up in my mailbox at school. I didn’t recognize the name in the return corner of the envelope, but I don’t get that many letters with my name and work address written by hand, so I was curious enough to open it immediately. The author of the letter turned out to be a childhood friend of the late poet, Austin Straus, who wrote me a second letter with some additional information about Austin. The letter itself was handwritten, too, which was a pleasure to read.

October 9, 2017

Dear Professor Mohr,

Looking at the websites pertaining to the death of Austin Straus, I gather that not much is known about his life before he moved to Los Angeles. In light of his upcoming memorial service I have written down some of my memories of that part of his life.

Austin was born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn in June 1939 (June 9, I think), a working class neighborhood of mainly East European Jewish immigrants and their children.

While he was in the early years of elementary school (about eight years old, or so) his parents bought a house in East Flatbush, a middle class neighborhood, and moved from Hopkinson Ave. to Albany Ave., across the street from where I lived, my parents having made the same move a few years earlier. From then until his early twenties, Austin lived in that house together with his parents, Roz and Fred (only after moving to San Diego upon retiring did he call himself Franklin, which, unbeknownst to us, was apparently his name all along), and his younger (by 2 years) brother, Dennis, with whom he shared a bedroom. The third bedroom was occupied by his grandmother. As she was not comfortable speaking English, Austin picked up a fair knowledge of Yiddish. There was also a family dog, Lucky, a tan cocker spaniel. All in all, a fairly typical upbringing.

Austin and I became very close friends (I was a year older), a friendship which lasted from elementary school through our teenage years into our early twenties. While attending Hebrew school, Austin was part of a group of us who were religiously observant.

His father worked on a U.S. mail train, which meant that he was away for several days and nights and then home for several days and nights. While home, he would often take Austin, Dennis and myself in the old family car to play ball in Prospect Park. Fred was an excellent athlete. In summer, we used to go swimming in Riis Park.

As teenagers, Austin, Lucky, and I would take long walks at night, often ending up in Brownsville, the neighborhood where we both were born. Brooklyn was still safe in those days. We often played handball together (pink ball). He was a good handball player and I remember vigorous games in the hot summer sun in Lincoln Terrace Park at the age of 20 or 21.

Austin started attending Brooklyn College but transferred to City College Downtown (now known as Baruch College) which was primarily a business school with the intention of majoring in accounting. I suspected this idea came from his parents. Needless to say, it was not a good fit and Austin changed his major to psychology (or possibly philosophy, not sure of this). After graduating, he pursued a Master’s degree in Philosophy at NYU.

It was about this time that Austin broke away from his conventional upbringing, choosing a bohemian (so-called at the time) lifestyle, moving into a tiny Greenwich Village apartment with a girlfriend. By this time, I was married and also attending graduate school to pursue an academic career. We saw each other less frequently. He had demonstrated talent as an artist while young but the first time I recall him being interested in poetry was when he read a poem of his to me when he was 24. My overall impression of Austin as we grew up was that he was intelligent, imaginative and sensitive, prone to enthusiasms over people and ideas, often followed by disappointments.

I do not know how he met Ann Moody, but he did come with her to visit my wife and myself in our Brooklyn apartment. Some years later, when the marriage was in difficulty, I saw her again when Austin asked me to use the van I was driving to remove his belongings from the apartment they shared in the Bronx. We were no longer in regular contact but I was called upon again to remove his things from the Upper West Side apartment of his second wife, Patrocina (?), a lovely young Panamanian woman to whom he was married only very briefly. Austin told that she expected a more conventional marriage and way of life.

Shortly thereafter he moved to California and our only direct contact was an occasional phone call. Indirectly, I heard about him through my mother, who kept in regular contact with Austin’s mother, Roz, then a widow living in San Diego. She told my mother that Austin phoned her every day. Since he never pursued a career as such, he had frequent financial difficulties. At the age of 55 he was desperately trying to get into the California educational system, apparently unsuccessfully. He told me he could not be considered for a full-time position at Los Angeles City College, where he taught English as an adjunct, because his master’s degree was in philosophy. It was only in his last phone call to me, about a month or so before his death, that I learned of the success of his one-of-a-kind art books.

Despite his illnesses, diabetes, and a previous bout with prostate cancer which he thought might be returning, he sounded very upbeat, saying that he was dating again, looking for the fourth Mrs. Straus. He had begun the conversation by saying that he thought he ought call me before one of us kicked the bucket. I don’t know whether he had a premonition of what was to come, but sadly, shortly thereafter, he died.

These are some of my memories of a very close friendship that lasted for over a decade and a half, and was less close thereafter. I shall, of course, try to answer any questions about the earlier part of Austin’s life that I am able to answer.

Sincerely yours,
Nathan Greenspan

October 30, 2017

Dear Bill,

A few more thoughts concerning Austin – Unlike most of his generation, myself included, born at the tail-end of the Great Depression, Austin did not seem overly concerned with earning a living. Unlike most of us, I do not recall him working during summer vacations. My wife, Vicki, had a summer job supervising a children’s playground at P.S. 235, the same public school Austin and I attended, which was very near his house. She went there during lunchtime to eat her brown bag lunch and chat with Roz Straus, Austin’s mother. One of her vivid memories is of Austin lying in a hammock in his backyard on one hot and sunny afternoon, and Roz calling out to him, “Austin, do you want your strawberries and sour cream now or later?”

Decades later, Austin phoned from California when I wasn’t home and spoke to Vicki (they knew each other well) for a long time, talking about his relationship with Wanda and other things going on in his life. She told me that all she said was “yes” or “um hum” every once in a while. At the end of the call Austin said to her excitedly, “You’re a great conversationalist!” We both had a good laugh over that. He was definitely more interested in talking about himself than in listening to others.

Austin and his two years younger brother Dennis were close growing up, sharing a bedroom as I mentioned in my previous letter. On one of his calls to me from California he mentioned that he and Dennis were not in contact with teach other. The break apparently came at Dennis’s initiative. He and his wife, Sheila Ascher-Straus, are published writers, describing themselves, I believe, as post-modernist.

…….Best regards,
Nate

(Nathan Greenspan)

Nathan Greenspan taught for about forty years full-time at Brooklyn College and Staten Island Community College, which later become the College of Staten Island. He also did some administrative work, serving as the political science coordinator for about a quarter-century.

The Austin Straus Memorial: “How’s it going, kid?”

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A week ago, in the midst of much personal travail, I drove up to Beyond Baroque to take part in the memorial service for Austin Straus, the late widower of Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman. About 20 people attended, and I shared with them a letter that had been written to me by a friend of Austin’s who now lives in Oregon. I also cited some of the recollections of Austin’s childhood and youth that had been sent to me in a letter by Nathan Greenspan. Not wanting to speak longer than anyone else, I refrained from reading one of Austin’s poems, but did mention that if I had had time, I would have chosen Austin’s “The All Purpose Apology Poem.” It turned out that Laurel Ann Bogen had intended to read that poem, and she delivered a knock-out rendition. Michael C. Ford contributed an amusing account of poetic rivalry between Austin and Michael that played out based on the slight difference in their birth months in 1939. One of the most touching moments occurred when the relatives of Ann Moody got up to speak about Austin. Ann was one of the civil rights protestors who sat at the Woolworth’s lunch counter and refused to accept segregation. She was also Austin’s first wife and the mother of his only child, Sasha, who works as an artist.

With the permission of Richard Hammerschlag, I present his fond memories of Austin.

Remembrance of Austin Straus
Richard Hammerschlag
Portland, Oregon
October 19, 2017

“Birthday buddies” was Austin’s sweet term for us. Our friendship began with his knock on my door one evening in the mid-1980s, a Falstaff-like guy fundraising for Santa Monicans for Renters Rights. His request for demographic information to validate my donation led to the happy discovery that Austin and I were both born in 1939 on the very same June day in New York City. The friendship, borne of that chance encounter and longer-odds coincidence of birth, was maintained over thirty years, mainly by phone after I moved to Portland and he to Lancaster.

From a young age, our lives had traveled separate paths, his to the Arts, mine to Science, and we often talked about the economic inequalities resulting from the different manner that societal value is coupled to remuneration for the two professions. And yet, Austin and I were each fascinated by the types of challenges the other faced in living creative lives.

Our friendship was also enriched by a shared love of Borscht-belt humor, with Austin often recommending YouTube sites for me to re-live the hallowed stand-up routines of such stalwarts as Henny Youngman, Buddy Hackett, Mel Brooks and Lenny Bruce.

Austin and I, from our New York upbringing, also shared an abiding passion for the Dodgers. Never mind, as Austin wouldn’t let me forget, how Walter O’Malley snuck the team out of Brooklyn in the dead of night, and was a silent party to the city of Los Angeles’ removal of much of the populace of Chavez Ravine in a land acquisition to build Dodger Stadium. Somehow, our youthful inoculation of Dodger lore (highlighted by the storied beginnings of Jackie Robinson and Vin Scully) trumped the back room conniving of management.

Up to his passing in mid-July, Austin closely followed the exploits of this year’s amazing Dodger team. At this writing, in mid-October, it appears (I know you are smiling Austin) that this will be one of those ‘Next Years’ that Dodger fans are always waiting ‘til’.

So, here’s to you, Austin… multi-talented artist, and compassionate friend to so many of us. It was a great pleasure to know and hug you and Wanda. I know you’ll call me next June 12 and each June 12 after that.

L.A.’s Literary Cartography — from Libros Schmibros to “Joyland”

Sunday, October 9, 2016

On Friday, October 7, Linda, Laurel Ann Bogen and I went to UCLA’s Powell Library for a reception to honor the permanent installation of a map of literary Los Angeles, which was drawn to scale by artist J. Michael Walker, within ten days of its commissioning, in the Fall of 2011. The haste of its cartography shows not a single wrinkle of the necessary improvisation that had to be part of its contingent, yet deftly evocative sketching. The map is not meant to be a definitive frieze; indeed, almost every figure portrayed on the map abuts a swath of empty space, as if to beckon the oncoming migration of writers past, present, and future.

David Kipen and Colleen Jaurretch, co-founders of Libros Schmibros bookstore, and J. Michael Walker, gave brief talks about the map, which had its debut at the Hammer Museum. The artist mentioned his fondness for the writing of the late Wanda Coleman, and cited in particular “Mad Dog, Black Lady,” the title of a poem I had the honor to publish in Momentum magazine in 1974. Wanda Coleman’s archives have recently been processed by UCLA’s Special Collections, and a display case containing a representative selection of printed material and holographs gave a hint of the resources that have now become available to critics of L.A.-based writing. (At the end of the month, there will be an event to celebrate this acquisition by UCLA’s Special Collections.) An additional display case featured correspondence by Raymond Chandler as well as books by and about another UCLA archival all-star, John Fante, one of which was written by my colleague at CSULB, Stephen Cooper.

Just before the formal presentation began, I spotted novelist and short story writer Julia Glassman in the audience. In the two decades during which I taught an annual fiction writing course at Idyllwild Summer Arts, Julia was one of my very best students, and she went on to get a MFA from the University of Iowa. She now works at the UCLA library, and was soon afterwards the first one to be cited in the roll call of those who had made the evening possible. Her first novel, “Other Life Forms,” was published by Dinah Press in 2012. Her most recent story, “Tourists,” appeared recently in “Joyland,” a superb on-line magazine that takes Peter Schjeldahl’s notion of “transmission cities” as its rubric.

I would highly recommend her novel, her story, and the magazine “Joyland” itself. Here are some links to the bookstore, map, and the magazine.

http://www.librosschmibros.org
http://digital2.library.ucla.edu/viewItem.do?ark=21198/zz002h27qf
http://www.joylandmagazine.com/regions/los-angeles/tourists
http://www.joylandmagazine.com/about-us
You can order “Other Life Forms” from Dinah Press at:
P.O. Box 24711
Los Angeles, CA 90024
or go to www.dinahpress.com

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.