“The Golden Age of Los Angeles Poetry” — Robert Kirsch on “THE STREETS INSIDE: Ten Los Angeles Poets”

TheStreetsInside

THE GOLDEN AGE OF LOS ANGELES POETY: The Streets Inside (1978)

The Streets Inside: Ten Los Angeles Poets (Santa Monica, CA: Momentum Press, 1978) was the first of three anthologies I either edited or co-edited in the past 40 years. While it was not the first book to group Los Angeles poets as a distinct ensemble in American poetry, The Streets Inside was, however, the first anthology of Los Angeles poets of any significant length. Earlier, very short projects of this sort included a collection called Poetry Los Angeles in 1958 that was scarcely bigger than an issue of a little magazine. A trio of Los Angeles poets, James Boyer May, Thomas McGrath, and Peter Yates, were the editors of that first Los Angeles anthology. According to World Cat, Poetry Los Angeles clocks in at 68 (unnumbered) pages. It is an interesting collection, however, if only because it reveals the fractures that existed in Los Angeles in the late 1950s. None of the poets in Venice West (such as Stuart Perkoff and Bruce Boyd) are included in Poetry Los Angeles.

Fourteen years later, Paul Vangelisti, Charles Bukoswki and Neeli Cherkovski partially rectified the omission of the Venice West poets from Poetry Los Angeles by including both Perkoff and John Thomas, who by that point had not only been part of the Venice West scene, but had also lived in San Francisco and then returned to Los Angeles. Although Anthology of L.A. Poets ended on the shelves of 90 libraries around the world, it didn’t attract much critical attention in Los Angeles, let alone elsewhere. In terms of local attention, I wrote one of the first reviews and published it in the second issue of Bachy magazine (July, 1973), and I recollect that a reporter named Jim Stingley wrote a series of articles for the Los Angeles Times in the spring of 1974 about “The Rise of L.A. Underground Poets” that cited that anthology. Unfortunately, Bukowski, Cherkovski, and Vangelisti’s anthology was not that much bigger than the volume published in 1958.

Over 250 pages of poetry in length, The Streets Inside implicitly made a claim about the significance of the “underground” poetry scenes in Los Angeles. In point of fact, my book featured fewer poets than Anthology of Los Angeles Poets, and therefore was a less representative sampling of the scene. In retrospect, it was an enormous error. to limit the anthology to ten poets. Perhaps I kept the number down because I was still editing Momentum magazine and I didn’t want the anthology to seem like a special issue of the magazine. The decision to have between 15 and 25 pages of work by each poet was one of the ways that I hoped to make the anthology distinct from the magazine.

It should also be noted that my desire to promote the poetry of Lee Hickman led to this large portfolio of each poet’s work. Without consciously copying Donald Allen’s New American Poetry, I placed the oldest poet first. Lee Hickman led off the book with five discrete poems from the manuscript I eventually published in 1980, Tiresias I:9:B Great Slave Lake Suite. Since Lee’s five long poems snagged 25 pages total, I could hardly have much smaller selections of poems by the other poets without distorting the sense of equivalency that was one of the central aspects of its self-identity.

Having Lee as the first of ten poets, however, helped solve the question of the rest of the order, for I wanted the poet who followed Lee to have a much quieter voice; few voices were speaking in the intricate yet subdued manner that had been achieved at that point by Jim Krusoe, whose second full-length book Small Pianos I published almost simultaneously with The Streets Inside. On a formal level, Jim’s writing also established just how unpredictable the Los Angeles scene could be in terms of a reader’s expectations. If opening The Streets Inside with Hickman’s highly oxygenated lyricism would startle many readers, then it should also be noted how truly unusual it was for an anthology forty years ago to follow up that bravura performance with poets who emphasized the prose poem. There is hardly any other anthology in the 1970s in which a significant number of the poets are represented by a substantial amount of prose poetry. In the selections of writing of Krusoe, Holly Prado, Deena Metzger, and Peter Levitt, the prose poem is an accepted variant of poetry. Of the first eight poets in the book, in fact, only Leland Hickman and Kate Ellen Braverman do not have any prose poetry.

A half-dozen anthologies of Los Angeles poets have appeared since The Streets Inside was published out of my bedroom apartment in Ocean Park, California (512 Hill St., Apt. 4). Many of them have received substantial praise from numerous reviewers and critics, but all of these subsequent anthologies are ultimately responses to the crucial “group show” of The Streets Inside. Robert Kirsch’s praise for this collection remains a clarion call to all subsequent projects involving Los Angeles poets.

“If Los Angeles were San Francisco, where these things are more readily recognized, what is happening in poetry here would long since have been hailed as a golden age. … This handsome and exciting anthology …… is a book worth pursing, even if difficult to find in your bookshop. If necessary, just send for it.” –
Robert Kirsch, Los Angeles Times, April 27, 1979

It should be noted that Kirsch was kind enough to put my mailing address in his review. The address was slightly inaccurate, but since I had lived there for a half-dozen years, the postman (an Atlanta Braves fan, as I recollect) unfailingly brought the letters requesting copies of the anthology straight to my mailbox. I therefore got some direct sense of how many people were reading Kirsch’s review and responding to it. I sold a couple dozen copies directly through mail orders and it sold very well at Papa Bach, Chatterton’s and several other independent stores.