Tag Archives: Robert Kirsch

Books Ground Level Conditions Poetry Small Press Publishing

“From a Secret Location….”

Saturday, April 1, 2017

More Secret Locations

About: From Book to Web


I began working on a literary history of some of the communities of poets in Los Angeles County in the mid-1990s. I had no realization whatsoever how long this account and accompanying contextual analysis would take to complete. As I worked on the initial outline, however, worrying about the publication date was a luxury I could not afford, for it was primarily a project motivated by dire circumstances. After many years of making a living as a typesetter, I was unemployed and had no likelihood of ever finding work again in that occupation. One evening, in mid-November, 1995, I spotted a flyer on a lobby counter at Beyond Baroque. The Getty Research Institute was requesting applications from scholars and cultural workers who would contribute to a year-long seminar on Los Angeles. I set to work on a proposal that I spend two months doing research on the poets in Venice West, and turned it in on the last day of the application date. In mid-Spring, I received a special delivery notice that I had received one of the visiting scholar awards. It was a radical shift in my life, in that it led to a decision to engage in graduate study at UC San Diego, starting in 1997.

The first few years that I was in grad school were impatiently devoted to doing the coursework for a Ph.D., during which time I felt encouraged by the publication of A Secret Location on the Lower East Side. It was the kind of book that emanated a lifetime of passionate involvement in the underground publication of poetry in the two decades after Donald Allen’s anthology first appeared, and it bespoke the necessity of my own project, which I saw as a spoke on the Great Wheel of this compendium by authors/archivists, Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips. At the many points at which I felt discouraged, I thought of their book as proof that Holdouts was more than individual nostalgia for what L.A. Times book critic Robert Kirsch had called the “golden age” of Los Angeles poetry.

As was the case with Holdouts, in which I had to leave out vast amounts of information, A Secret Location was merely the first major sifting of the period under examination (1960-1980). In making the entire original book available for anyone with a computer and internet access to read, Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips have performed an extraordinary act of scholarly generosity. They have taken the project further, though, and added entries for other notable magazines and small press outfits, such as Abraxas, Extensions, Luna Bisonte Prods, New American Writing, Oink, Streets and Roads, Sugar Mountain, the, Tooth of Time Review, Grist, Long News in the Short Century, Sunshine, Unmuzzled Ox, Search for Tomorrow, and Tansy.

For those who missed the post a few days back, you can also listen to David Wilk’s recently posted interview with me as a way of hearing about some of the books that are mentioned in the checklist on this very personal instance of a Secret Location.

David Wilk interviews poet and publisher Bill Mohr

Biography Books Poetry

Recollections of the Distant Past: Ocean Park and Culver City

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Recollections of the Distant Past: Ocean Park (Bill Mohr) and Culver City (Larry Goldstein)

One of the first projects of the upcoming summer will be my interviews for the Oral History Project (OHP) at UCLA. I received an invitation to contribute to the OHP slightly over a year ago, but both Jane Collings, who will conduct the interviews, and I have been too involved in other tasks to sit down with a tape recorder. We almost got started this past January, but since the process entails a half-dozen sessions lasting an hour and a half each, we decided not to engage in intermittent recall. In a fortnight, however, this oral memoir will get at last get underway, and I am both grateful this opportunity and honored to be asked.

Jane has said that she will drive from UCLA to Long Beach to conduct the interviews, which will probably happen in the morning, since traffic on the 405 will flow best for her at that time. I wish somehow I could persuade her to conduct at least one interview in Ocean Park, where I lived for 20 years (1973-1993) and did the most important work of my life. I never visit that area but that I am seized with a pervasive, ambivalent nostalgia. As much as I would have enjoyed spending the rest of my life there, it would have left so many other tasks incomplete. I had to leave, though it broke my heart to do so.

In my sojourn of the past two decades, I was often uncertain of where I would be living in the near future. Moving to Long Island from San Diego certainly caught both Linda and me off-guard, as did the precise location of the return move to the West Coast. I never anticipated that I would end up teaching at Cal State Long Beach, a campus I first visited when Michael Horowitz, the British poet who edited Children of Albion, came and gave a reading back in 1973. I had met Michael when I spent a month in London in September, 1971. Ah! It strikes me that I ought to forestall this recoil of memory and let it unfold when the tape recorder is running. Once I write this out, the oral history will end up as a recitation rather than a rediscovery when Jane pushes the “on” button. Until the upcoming sessions are done, therefore, I think it will be best if I focus on the less personal in my blog posts.

In abruptly terminating these references to being a young poet, I find myself wanting to give the reader some recompense. By chance, one of my newest friends, Larry Goldstein, has just had an article published that delves back into his origins as a writer; the link to it can be found at the end of this post. The way that cinematic careers (in all their frequent brevity) and serious book reviewing blend in Larry’s article might surprise many people outside of Los Angeles, but even those who do not know of Robert Kirsch will savor this glimpse of a young man’s life emboldened by the spontaneous hunches of his on-the-spot mentors.


Books Poetry

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



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.

Books Poetry Translation

David Ulin and “Wide Awake”

January 1, 2016 — Top Ten Picks of David Ulin; The Monolingualism of American Literature

LA Times Book Critic David Ulin has edited several anthologies himself, a fact that deserves underlining when he includes Suzanne Lummis’s Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond as one of his ten favorite books published in 2015. One doesn’t have to have edited an anthology of poets to gauge the value of such an effort, but it certainly tends to make one a more judicious reader of anthologies. Lummis, too, is a veteran of this kind of editorial project; she co-edited an earlier anthology with almost the same subtitle back in the early 1990s. The high marks that Ulin gives Lummis’s latest anthology are much appreciated in the Los Angeles poetry community, if only because L.A. poets have not always had a smooth ride in the L.A. Times. In particular, one can recollect that Robert Kirsch once anointed my first anthology, The Streets Inside: Ten Los Angeles Poets (Momentum Press, 1978) as an indication of a “golden age” of Los Angeles poetry. Unfortunately, not everybody who worked at the LA Times Book Review agreed with Kirsch’s assessment, and poets were regarded as cultural orphans of their own success. I’ll put it simply: it’s nice to be appreciated again. Ulin implicitly suggests the exponential growth of the diverse scenes here by pointing out that Wide Awake is “magnificent” both in quantity (it contains “the work of more than 100 poets”) and quality (it “reveal(s) the depths and power of the city’s poetic sensibility”). That David Ulin appreciates the efforts of the diverse communities of poets in this city enough to award Lummis’s anthology a top ten pick is very gratifying, and I hope Suzanne Lummis is savoring the acknowledgement.

The last paragraph in Carolyn Kellogg’s end-of-the-year commentary in the LA Times is also worth further consideration. In referring to the choice of a Russian writer for the Nobel Prize in Literature this year, Kellogg cites an article that appeared back in 2008 in which a member of the Nobel selection committee commented that American writing is “too insular.” The charge is true, I’m afraid, though the full quotation I’ve been able to dig up is even more revealing:

“The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature,” (Horace) Engdahl said. “That ignorance is restraining.”

The real gripe that the Swedish academy has with American writing lies in the evidence of its insularity: “They don’t translate enough.” This could be translated, so to speak, as “You don’t care about us; so why should we care about you?” Fair enough, and it brought to mind how I recently found that my most widely distributed posting in this blog for the entire year of 2015 was “Against the Monolingual Torture of Writers,” which was originally posted back in early September. For some reason, it took off in December, and had over 300 pageviews, with 161 human visits, of which 149 were new visitors to my blog. My post was firmly on the side of the Swedish academy, and perhaps it caught the attention of someone in Europe who was surprised to find an American writer at odds with his peers.

Fortunately for me, my blog is not dependent on American book publishers for advertising in order to keep itself going. If it were, I could see retribution heading my way lickety-split. Believe me, I’ve seen it happen. The announcement earlier today of the death of Natalie Cole recoiled with references to “Unforgettable,” a song that her father had made famous and which the daughter reprised by having a version in which her voice was blended in a duet with his. Back when the father-daughter version was soaring up the charts, the newspaper I was working at as a typesetter started running cartoons with a slightly satirical edge to them about the music industry. The publisher must have thought it would make his paper “different” from the other trade papers. What he didn’t count on was that you can only get away with making fun of something that everybody shares a dislike of (i.e., politicians). The music industry takes itself very seriously, and when the front page ran a cartoon of Natalie Cole saying to a skeleton figure of her father, “Hey, Dad, you’re stepping on my lines,” (or something similarly sarcastic), the music label that released Cole’s remake let my paper know that it wasn’t just cancelling advertising of that particular song in the next issue or the issue after: all advertising by that label was forthwith cancelled. Or at least that’s the version that I heard in the hallway. I do remember some rather tense editorial and salespeople faces walking past me for a week or so until the crisis was resolved. The first thing to go, of course, was the contract with the cartoonist, nor was a replacement sought.

So, yes, once again, it would make American literature more interesting if the writers here asked themselves at some point if what they are writing would at all interest someone who can only read Spanish or Chinese. Are you saying something profound enough or insightfully witty enough to merit the travail required to translate it? I do appreciate how hard it is to attain that level of writing. My first book of poems in another language has only been published after over 40 years of writing. Surely, though, those poets who have won so many more awards that I have during that time have some explanation for why their work does not seem to make a transition beyond the wall of American monolingualism.