Bill Mohr: Becoming Beat and Post-Beat in L.A.


Becoming Beat and Post-Beat in L.A.:
Strange Facts and Fictions about the Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance

(Originally presented at the Bonnie Cashin Lecture series, University of California, Los Angeles, April 11, 2013)

In an academic setting, one usually starts with an acknowledgements page, since enduring scholarship is inherently an interwoven dialogue. First of all, I want to thank the University of California, Los Angeles as a publicly supported institution for having confidence enough in my youthful potential to admit me as an undergraduate student in the Fall of 1968. U.C.L.A. provided me with a way to move to Los Angeles from the backwaters of Imperial Beach, and to gain an initial familiarity with one of the great cities of the contemporary world. More recently, Susan Anderson at the Special Collections section of U.C.L.A.’s Young Research Library has been generously giving her time and attention to the material history of poets working in this city. Through her diligence we are celebrating some of the aspects of Los Angeles’s variegated communities of literary accomplishments. I wish to thank Tom Hyry and Cindy Newsome for their work in facilitating this particular event, which is made possible of course by the generosity of Bonnie Cashin’s endowment for this lecture series. My colleagues, both in literature and creative writing at CSU Long Beach, for the past seven years have encouraged me in small and big ways. One of them, George Hart, whose book on Robinson Jeffers is about to be published, is in attendance this afternoon as a representative of that hard-working faculty. Finally, I want to emphasize that the beat and the post-Beat are hardly the whole story of Los Angeles poetry, and no one listening to the videotape of this talk or reading the revised transcription should ever succumb to that illusion. I would not have been able to mature as a poet, for instance, if I had not had the good fortune in the mid-1990s to have Tim Steele as a neighbor whose insightful company as a fellow poet gave me much solace at a difficult time in my life. It pleases me enormously that Tim is here today, and any serious reader of contemporary poetry owes it to herself or himself to become as familiar with his work as I am with the poets whose writing I will cite in this talk. Thank you, one and all.

In another quarter century or so, the proliferation of poets in Los Angeles since the mid-point of the 20th century may well merit some more scintillating rubric than what I have bestowed on it: the Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance. As useful as this term was in writing Holdouts, recently published by the University of Iowa Press, perhaps it will turn out, in retrospect, to be nothing more than an “enabling fiction,” as Michael Davidson has designated similar efforts. Of course, cynics elsewhere who like to scoff at anything that aspires to serious cultural work in Los Angeles have probably noted at dinner table conversation that the acronym reads L A P R, and that claims of substantial literary history in L.A. amount to little more than that: Los Angeles Public Relations; “Just another dollop of provincial self-flattery,” these critics would chortle. For once, though, an art form in Los Angeles has managed not only to survive but to thrive on occasion, primarily because of the indefatigable efforts of a multitude of hard-working artists.

In this talk, I am going to address two different periods of poetics in the efflorescence of several overlapping scenes in Los Angeles during the Cold War. While “Beat” and “post-Beat” barely begin to account for the plenitude of poetry in Los Angeles between 1947 and 1992, as well as in the years since, both terms will involve different connotations than would be generated if these categories were placed in different cities, such as Chicago or Denver or New York. In particular, “post-Beat” will involve both the way some poets in Los Angeles in recent decades extracted what was useful from the Beat and attempted to move onward as propitious mutations, while other Los Angeles poets were truly post-Beat (as in post-modern) in that they honored those who had first been here, but completely rejected the paralyzing passivity that seemed to afflict the Beat poets here, particularly in the realm of publication. This second group of poets distinguished themselves as double-duty agents of cultural change through their work as post-Beat poet-editors.

Although the term “Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance” might eventually be superseded by some other more flexible, yet precisely pertinent term, for the present moment it has the felicitous advantage of serving up an immediate juxtaposition with another cultural insurgency, the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, most famous for events that have become synonymous with Beat poetry. Literary history, however, is largely an attempt by curious scholars to find out what has been erased from popular accounts of a period’s activity and to redress the imbalance between the actual and the social imaginary, in Norman Klein’s sense of that term. It is now more widely understood that the San Francisco Renaissance was not some homogenous distillation of radical poetics, but rather an extended and complicated sequence of scenes that had several distinct segments: the Berkeley Renaissance of the late 1940s, the San Francisco Renaissance that began in the early 1950s, and the Beat eruption, beginning in 1955. The Poetry Conference in Berkeley in 1965, which brought together many poets from all these intervals, is largely seen as the moment when a diaspora occurred and Northern California largely glided through the next ten years on the aftermath of its own legends.

In contrast, the Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance also involved a set of communities in its first stage, which included the most active independent literary magazine scene in the entire nation between 1947 and 1955.. It is within the context of that literary activity that the Beats in Venice West shaped their nascent community into a scene that was commercially exploited by their self-promoting mentor, Lawrence Lipton, whose book The Holy Barbarians promulgated an image of the Beats in Los Angeles that went against everything the Beats in Venice West aspired to.

In recent years, Venice West has begun to be reexamined as one of the central havens for Beat poets in the 1950s and early 1960s. Beginning with John Arthur Maynard’s Venice West: The Beat Generation in Southern California (Rutgers University Press, 1993), the poets who formed a distinctive and autonomous community of Beat-affiliated artists in Venice, California have slowly emerged as that portion of the mid-century underground most deserving of renewed attention. Maynard’s study, however, mainly concentrated on the adversarial relationship between Lawrence Lipton in Venice and Kenneth Rexroth in San Francisco. Maynard, unfortunately, gave very little attention to the writing of the poets and cited almost none of it in a manner befitting its literary value.

In considering the trajectory of this Beat community, one must first remember that it went through a complete cycle of anonymity, fame and back to anonymity within a two-decade loop. By the end of its early years, in the late 1950s, it became part of the national landscape in a number of different forms , ranging from Lipton’s best-selling The Holy Barbarians to a several page spread in an issue of Life magazine. Notoriety, however, was not what the Venice West Beats wanted. If anything, the publicity Lipton generated destroyed the potential of their community just as effectively as the “Summer of Love” broadsided the communal efforts of alternative communities in San Francisco in 1967. Nevertheless, the Beats in Venice West certainly had their credentials in order, spontaneity: check; drugs: check; jazz and poetry, check. Street life: check. Expresso Café: check. Non-academic workshop: check. Contributors to Don Allen’s anthology, The New American Poetry. Check. A chockfull of resonant markers affirmed that their community, which first gathered in various homes starting in 1955, was not some derivative copy of North Beach or Greenwich Village, but an indigenous and slightly more anarchistic project. But the Beats in Venice West broke ranks with Beat communities elsewhere in one significant way, and this particular point can’t be emphasized enough: becoming Beat in Venice, California was a deliberate choice to reject a literary career. When one reviews a list of the primary poets working in Venice between 1955 and 1965, it is still shocking to realize how little of their work was in print when Maynard’s book was published in 1993. Nor did things get better subsequent to Maynard’s detailed cautionary tale. When I visited UC Berkeley’s library in the summer of 1996, there was a fairly comprehensive exhibit of Beat materials in the lobby of the library: the words, “Venice West,” did not once appear anywhere in the materials. One can attribute this invisibility to the poets themselves, who were infamous for writing poems inspired by their regressive idea of the Muse as “the Lady” and then burning those poems. In Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” poets wrote all night and discovered at dawn that it was ash in the chimney. In Venice West, the ash of the poet’s forays into language was a consecration of themselves as indivisible at that instant from the Muse who had given them an allaying vision of an alternative community of consciousness.. If burning poems just written seems closer in spirit to being anarchist rather than Beat, then so be it. The anarchist roots of this community, in fact, stretch back to Perkoff as an 18 year old college dropout in New York City; he seems to have been one of the first men in the entire nation to refuse the summons of the military draft, which was re-instituted in 1948, and he was very briefly jailed for his impudence, before being released because the system apparently had not anticipated anybody rejecting post-World War II conscription. Perkoff went on to publish poems in several of the best-known underground literary magazines of the time, but along with Frank Rios, John Thomas and Bruce Boyd, made only feeble, sporadic efforts between 1955 and 1970 to get a manuscript turned into a book. Is it any wonder then that a wave of Baby Boomer poets were able to come along and with only a few years of intense editing and publishing manage to position themselves as a substantial new generation of poets in Los Angeles?

Before we move, though, to the post-Beats, who truly make up the bulk of the Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, let us establish both some facts about the Beats in Los Angeles as well as provide for the record a partial list of those whose valor made Venice West a briefly viable community. Certainly facts about the beats in Los Angeles remain in short supply, including the actual number of people who were self-identified as members of that moment. Fact: there were several thousand more people who regarded themselves as beat in Los Angeles than in San Francisco. This statistic is not that surprising when one considers how much larger Los Angeles is than San Francisco, both in square miles and in its general population. The San Francisco scene certainly had the verve and the charisma of a great location, but the beat scene in Los Angeles, according to Venice West poet Bruce Boyd, was actually the more genuine incarnation of this kind of effort. In particular, I would refer you to the poem, “Venice Recalled,” which originally appeared in Donald Allen’s extraordinary anthology, The New American Poetry, in 1960, and then was deleted from his subsequent volume, The Postmoderns. You can also find “Venice Recalled” reprinted in Holdouts. Boyd was known as the Zen poet of Venice West, and he disappears completely without a trace in 1969 with his last known address being in Santa Monica. He did not, however, leave behind an ambiguous trail of picture post cards of Santa Monica City Hall. Boyd himself never had a single collection of his poems published, not even a four-page chapbook, even though he had poems in major underground magazines of the period. At some point, a scholar will undertake a new study of Venice West, and in doing so, perhaps an anthology of the Venice West poets might begin to redress their absence from the current anthologies of Beat writing. Boyd’s poetry should be generously represented in such a volume, alongside the writing of poets such ofPerkoff, John Thomas, Frankie Rios, Tony Scibella, Eileen Ireland, Saul White, and Bill Margolis. The interesting decision about such a volume will be how to address the presence in Venice at that time of a Beat poet such as Harold Norse, who will later move to San Francisco, as well as the subsequent writings of exceptionally kindred spirits such as Gerda Penfold, Frances Dean Smith, and Luis Campos.

Venice West collapsed in the mid-sixties and lately I have begun to realize that the demise of Venice West, which saw itself as a scene hospitable to racial integration, is perhaps not unconnected to the Watts Uprising that took place within the same context. Venice had been called “the slum by the sea” by Lawrence Lipton, but it was more of a vacation resort for the disaffiliated than the thinly disguised prison that usually passes in American society as a community under repression. To move from the Beat to the post-Beat, therefore, has to include the kinds of shifts that occurred as a very young and naively cynical generation came onto the scene. On one level, the easiest way to compare what’s involved with becoming Beat and post-Beat in Los Angeles is to understand it as a generational shift, which leads to the question of what constitutes a generation, at least in terms of poetry. Aesthetic affiliations are hardly sufficient in drawing up temporal boundaries. Surprisingly enough, maybe even irritating in its obviousness, the subtitle of Allen’s The New American Poetry, the anthology in which Venice West poets Stuart Perkoff and Bruce Boyd both appeared, provides the best way of delineating this transition from Beat to the post-Beat. In a book first published by Grove Press in 1960 and reprinted as a classic of the mid-century turbulence within American literature, Allen gathered several dozen poets with representative poems written between 1945 and the year of the anthology’s publication. This decade and a half increment also happens to demarcate the birth of a substantial number of the poets who will go on to become the poets, and editors and publishers of the post-Beat in Los Angeles. One usually hears this group referred to as the baby boomers of American society, Now I certainly don’t want to suggest an overdetermined set of discrete poets at work here in which there is no overlap in audience between the initial set of readers of Allen’s anthology, which was young poets born in the 1930s, and the subsequent set of readers, the young poets born within the subtitle’s parameters. But reading those poets in Allen’s anthology seemed to empower the young poets born between 1945 and 1960 to do something in Los Angeles that the Beat scene had unfortunately neglected. They became editors and publishers, and in doing so, willy-nilly they found that a new stage of what would become known as the culture wars was unofficially underway.

Those who might be familiar with Holdouts will be waiting for the other shoe to drop at this point, for in fact we can’t move forward into the post-Beat without acknowledging that Los Angeles was not without its contentious poetic factions in the 1950s. While the Beats in Venice West neglected to do more than have their poems appear on an intermittent basis in literary magazines, other poets and champions of poetry in Los Angeles were adamant about establishing some consistent schedule of publication.This is a moment when I would direct you to the hand-out, where you will see starting at the top of the list magazines such as Variegation, Recurrence, California Quarterly, Trace, and Coastlines listed. No other city in the United States had a set of non-academically based magazines between 1947 and 1955 that published an enormous variety of primarily non-academic poets. Two of these magazines lasted well into the 1960s, and thanks to the efforts of Estelle Gershgoren Novak, the history of these magazines is far more accessible than it was when I began to write Holdouts. At the midpoint of Coastlines run of issues, one of the editors, Gene Frumkin, wrote a letter to James Boyer May at Trace magazine that helps us understand one of the strategies that marked the non-Beats in Los Angeles as distinct from those who became Beat.

There is one question that continually follows at the heels of little magazine editors. Is there a need for their product?

Yes, we know that the little mags are outlets for young, unknown writers. Yes, there is often creative stimulation through contacts made between writers and the editors. Yes, little mags publish significant work that otherwise might not have seen print.

But these are the functional answers, the ones even those who have never heard of little magazines might accept. There is another answer, too, though: the same one many active in little theater, in small music groups, in the less commercial art schools, in folk song and folk dance, have discovered. These people… we…want to become lost, to detach ourselves from our commonplace neighbors, those good, dear people with their stale gardens and attitudes. And these ventures of ours are side-streets which are never entirely familiar, no matter how often we walk on them. We hope one day to get so lost we need return to the boulevard only occasionally, for provisions. Only those who are truly lost, with no instruction sheets, away from all directional arrows, only those need to find; only they create something for the human spirit.

Or, to put it another way: we are subversives. Not the kind who make headlines, but nevertheless hard-working, purposeful. As long as we exist, the world of the banker, general, bureaucrat, is not safe. As far as the power, the pillars, of society and those who take their cues from them are concerned, we are no more than termites. Let them then exterminate us. For, if they don’t, in the end, we may bring down their house. With the hope, of course, that there is somewhere among us a better architect to build a nobler structure.”

If this earlier set of poet-editors (Gene Frumkin, Alvaro-Cardona-Hine, Mel Weisburd, Grover Jacoby Jr., and James Boyer May) characterized themselves as hard-working, they were not being self-congratulatory in contrasting themselves to the Beats. Rather, they were trying to make it clear to the poets who filled the pages of an anthology such as New Poets of England and America that a vital community of poets distinguished themselves from both the Beats and the Academics, and that the so-called anthology wars between “raw” poetry and “cooked” poetry needed to expand their palates for poetry. It was in this sense of trying to find a third path that many of the next generation of poet-editors took up the cause of underground publishing in Los Angeles.

Now it must be said that the first wave of poet-editors in Los Angeles was almost entirely straight white males. One reading in particular serves as a perfect sample. On Sunday, April 7, 1974, a flyer announced that “Five Editors” would “Lay it On the Line at Papa Bach Bookstore, which was located on Santa Monica Boulevard, less than fifty yards west of NuArt movie theater, on the other side of the street. Michael C. Ford, John Harris, James Krusoe, William Mohr, Paul Vangelisti. I was the youngest of these editors, and I was fortunate in having older siblings in the sense of cultural workers who were prescient advocates of the poets whose writing would gain traction in the years to come. Jim Krusoe, for instance, selected K. Curtis Lyle’s 17 Predestination Weather Reports as one of Beyond Baroque’s winning manuscripts for its New Book Series in the mid-1970s. Lyle was one of the first poets on the West Coast to take up the surrealist poetics of San Francisco Beat poet Bob Kaufman, and in doing so, he transmitted ever-densening cosmic alignments of foliating visions to future L.A.-based poets such as Will Alexander. One of the things that marks the arrival of this new wave of poet-editors is a genuine interest in promoting and affirming the work coming out of the African-American community. Lyle was one of the members of the Watts Writers Workshop and Wanda Coleman moved from that environment to the Beyond Baroque workshop in the very early 1970s.

In looking at that list of poet-editors who read at Papa Bach in 1974, however, one notes that it is a gathering of the post-Beat in both senses of the word that I mentioned at the start of the talk. Michael C. Ford, for instance, was old enough to have been in attendance at the jazz and poetry concert that Stuart Perkoff and other Venice West poets took part in at the West Coast Jazz Center, in December, 1957, an event that was also attended by Thomas McGrath and Igor Stravinsky. While it is true that Ford’s heroes tend to be jazz figures, Ford provides an example of how certain facts get lost as the aura of assumptions bolsters our tendency to create fictions that fit familiar patterns. The one issue that can be raised is whether or not it is all a uni-directional flow in terms of transmitting possibilities. I remember one night when Doren Robbins and I attended a reading by Michael C. Ford and Michael McClure at McCabe’s Guitar Shop on Pico Boulevard. Ford had been collaborating for some time with Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist of the Doors. Ford first read some poems and then Manzarek came out on stage and played the piano as Ford read a second set. Now McClure certainly knew Manzarek before this reading at McCabe’s, but Ford’s laconic poetry blended with Manzarek’s improvised, and subtly startling annotations with such seeming and graceful nonchalance that McClure couldn’t help but notice. It didn’t take long before McClure was collaborating with Manzarek. Perhaps they would have found each other in any case, but the fact remains that it was the post-beat poet, M.C. Ford, who gave the beat poet an example of what might invigorate an evening’s recital of verse. It should be noted that McClure probably was more involved in Los Angeles than most beat poets based in San Francisco. The Company Theater, for instance, staged several of his plays and McClure was one of the teaching faculty at Padua Hills Theater Festival. In thinking of Manzarek, though, one would have to raise the question of how exactly do the lyricists of popular music fit into the trajectory of post-Beat becoming. One of the first letters I received about my book, Holdouts, specifically challenged the absence of Jim Morrison, and while Morrison’s writing hardly compares in quality to that of Bob Dylan’s, his charisma as a performance poet still palpably glows from the hills through which Sunset Boulevard slithers like a regal lizard.

The other poet-editors who read at Papa Bach were split in their affinities between the Beat preference for jazz and the post-Beat for the edgier rip-tide chords of rock ‘n roll. Even in a matter as simple as the preference for genres of music, the post-Beat found itself having to work a balancing act so as to accommodate the diverse kinds of poems that were beginning to show up at poetry reading venues all around town, especially at the newer book stores, such as Chatterton’s and George Sand. This new group of poets was for the most part younger, but they also represented the push to accommodate the justifiably impatient demands of feminists and writers of color to have significant voices in the conversations between poets that by the end of the decade would be acknowledged by Robert Kirsch in the spring of 1979 in the L.A. Times as a “golden age” of Los Angeles. It is during the decade culminating in Kirsch’s assessment that we start to have to deal with some strange facts about literary life in Southern California. When I say “strange facts,” I mean strange in the sense of “irritable,” something that refuses to find its own level of reconciliation. The strange fact is that by 1974 Los Angeles was certainly the equal of San Francisco in having bookstores at which one could find contemporary books and magazines of poetry to read as well as to hear poets read their work. The challenge facing the poets in Los Angeles in the 1970s was to distinguish themselves as post-Beat not in the sense that their work was meant to revivify the legacy of the Beats. Rather, the desire to be post-Beat was to separate oneself from that aura. It’s not that the excesses of the Beats suddenly met with a puritanical streak amongst the poets, though it is somewhat the case that the poet-editors in the 1970s tended be more skeptical about the claims of the Beats that drug usage equaled vision equaled artistic invigoration.

If poetry readings were one of the ways that the Beats made themselves part of the public sphere in the 1950s, then perhaps that predilection is the strongest link between the Beat and the post-Beat in Los Angeles. It’s by looking at various readings, in fact, that one can note how new figures in coteries were beginning to be seen as part of a larger group. One event that perhaps gives some sense of the transition from the beat to the post-beat would be a reading I had suggested back in the mid-70s for a Valentine Day’s event at Beyond Baroque in Venice. Instead of personal love poems, I said to Jim Krusoe, who was running Beyond Baroque’s reading series at that point, why don’t we read the poems by other poets that we love? And so an ensemble of Los Angeles poets came together to read from other poet’s works: Holly Prado read Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra,” Wanda Coleman read Garcia Lorca’s “Green. I Want you so much: Green,” I read Charles Olson’s “In Cold Hell, In Thicket,” and Jack Grapes couldn’t resist himself: “I like my own poems best,” is the title of one of the earliest examples of a poetry that became associated with the Stand-Up school of poetry, a group that had its core membership located in Long Beach, California, but which also included Ron Koertge in Pasadena and Gerry Locklin, who has published well over 2,000 poems to date.

Certainly the Valentine’s Day reading of 1976 stands in contrast to Gallery Six reading twenty years earlier as well as to the reading by five editors at Papa Bach two years earlier. White men and only white men read at the Six Gallery, but feminists and writers of color were beginning to make a considerable stir in the post-Beat epoch of Los Angeles. The next increment of indigenous poet-editors to emerge was in fairly stark contrast: Aleida Rodriguez, Manazar Gamboa, Jack Skelley, Victor Valle, Leland Hickman, and Dennis Cooper all edited magazines between 1975 and 1982. Of these half-dozen additional figures, only one could be classified as fitting into the heterosexual, white male niche that marked the line-up at Papa Bach’s reading of editors. It should be noted that all of these people I’ve named so far in regards to the readings in the 1970s are poet-editors, which is to say that they viewed themselves as cultural workers attempting to negotiate the incommensurability of the streets of normative obedience to the military-industrial complex (that was seizing ever more control of America’s psyche), and post-Beat “streets inside” of dream-world journaling, consciousness raising groups, and an experimental poetics of public sound and private meaning.

The resources that these new editors had as means to draw on in producing their magazines varied quite widely. Manazar Gamboa, for instance, had arrived at Beyond Baroque in the late 1970s on parole from prison. He began working as a volunteer librarian, but soon found himself taking on responsibilities that allowed him to edit Beyond Baroque’s magazine. Poets such as Aleida Rodriguez and Leland Hickman (1934-1991) still had to work day jobs to keep rara avis and Bachy in motion. Eventually, Hickman would go on to edit two other magazines, Boxcar and Temblor, both of which serve as anomalous examples of post-Beat writing, in emphasizing those writers whose counterpoint to the Beat demanded a far more rigorous investigation of language as the primary envelopment of human consciousness. But Hickman’s most important editorial took place in the late 1980s, and we still have yet to take of some prime examples of the post-Beat in Los Angeles in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In particular, the extraordinary efforts of Dennis Cooper’s Little Caesar magazine and Little Caesar Press permit us to consider the multi-layered, intermingling communities within the post-Beat, which would include many of the gay poets, such as Tim Dlugos, published by Cooper in the groundswell of gay pride launched by the post-Stonewall generation, as well as the post-Beat poet Lewis MacAdams, who gained immediate attention soon after his arrival in Los Angeles about 35 years ago when Cooper published The Marriage of Walt Whitman and Marilyn Monroe. I’m not sure exactly when Lewis MacAdams first parodied Allen Ginsberg’s “First thought, best thought.” MacAdams might very well have written, “First burp, best burp” when he was living in New York City and hanging around the Poetry Project at St. Marks, or he might have written it while he was living in Bolinas, California, but he made himself very much welcome at home in Los Angeles the first time that he uttered that comment at a reading at Beyond Baroque. Lewis seemed post-Beat in the best sense of the word, a poet devoted to ecological consciousness that entails clarity of language and respect for its ability to turn what might be portentously elegiac into social action aimed at the requital of ameliorating restitution. His work, in particular, on making his fellow citizens aware of both the symbolic and practical configuration of the Los Angeles helped establish the ecological movement as a respected presence of in this city’s public sphere.

The other major Little Cesar émigré to spend significant time here was Michael Lally, who even as a renitent ephebe in a working-class neighborhood in New Jersey saw himself as a hipster, without even knowing of how the Beats were making a fetish out of that attitude. The image machine of the culture industry is always already ripe for the plucking and few of the post-Beat poets have made such dexterous use of it as Lally, who showed up in the very early 1980s with an attitude that blended nonchalant insouciance with heartfelt impudence. His book from Little Caesar, Hollywood Magic, features the leather-jacketed, ambitious young actor swiveling to an internal timpani of jazz-inflected epistemology. He’s got it down, the viewer is almost compelled to acknowledge, and indeed Lally’s monologues, such as “My Life” remain feverishly fresh and enchanting. Lally, however, was not the only actor at that time writing poetry as if it were some existential sacrament. Harry Northup, born in 1940 in the Midwest, had arrived in Los Angeles in 1970 shortly after his actor-poet friend Leland Hickman, and steadily built up a reputation as a character actor with directors as noteworthy as Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme. His huge volume of poems, Enough the Great Running Chapel, which I published through Momentum Press in 1982, is equally as powerful as Lally’s in serving as an exemplary incarnation of the post-Beat.

In all this accumulation of poetic energy, the factor that seems to separate the Beat from the post-Beat in Los Angeles is a commitment on the part of poets to the writing of other poets. If Ron Silliman, the poet laureate of the blogosphere and the most important poet-critic of the Language writing movement, once wrote me from San Francisco to say, “Los Angeles is sitting on top of the best magazine scene in the nation,” it wasn’t because he enjoyed admitting anything praiseworthy about Los Angeles. Silliman probably loathes Los Angeles more than any poet I’ve ever met, but he was forced to concede the quality of the work being done in Los Angeles because we are far from the end of our tour of the post-Beat poet-editor paradigm in Los Angeles.

Two editors whose work made an enormous difference in Los Angeles were almost radical opposites in temperament and interests. Peter Schneidre (1950-2007) and Clayton Eshleman supported completely different sets of poets. I don’t think either published another poet who belonged to the other’s table of contents. Schneidre started Illuminati Press in the late 1970s and like many of the poet-editors in Los Angeles, also ran a reading series. Schneider’s most famous reading series was downtown Los Angeles, at Al’s Bar. Several dozen Los Angles poets read there over the years. It was at a reading I did there with John Harris, the owner of Papa Bach at that time, and Bob Flanagan that I heard Harris read a long poem called “Car Wreck” that represented his work in Poetry Loves Poetry. In a sense, it was Schneidre’s curating of the reading series that assisted me with editing an important anthology.

One of the poets Peter Schneidre championed is one of those rare poets who was born and has lived her entire life in Los Angeles. Bogen had begun reading her poems in public in the mid-1970s, but it was Peter Schneidre’s confidence in her stalwart variations on confessional poetry that led to the publication of the first of several titles from Illuminati Press between 1984 and 1989, during which time Schneidre also published the first significant book of poems by Suzanne Lummis. Both Bogen and Lummis represent a tendency in the post-Beat poets in Los Angeles to write a searing, passionate poetry that lends itself to being enacted on the stage. The performance factor seems to be as much a gauge for these poets as all the other means by which poets calculate whether a poem has reached its final draft. In the case of poets such as Bogen and Lummis, who comprise with Linda Albertano a poetry performance troupe called Nearly Fatal Women, the performance of the poem is not meant to be applauded as if in some bar-room slam contest. Print culture is still their primary domain, and they have no interest in a poetics, Beat or post-Beat, that does not include the primacy of the page in any literate oscillation worthy of a reader’s encounter.

Apart from all these others, Clayton Eshleman cut a singular path between the bookstore readings of Los Angeles and the cultural capital of educational institutions such as California Institute of Technology (CalTech) and Cal Arts (California College of the Arts, Valencia). His accomplishments as a translator of some of the world’s most important poets, such as Cesar Vallejo, gave him a cantankerous aura that he played like a master musician during his many years in Los Angeles. His seemingly endless reservoirs of editorial energy in Los Angeles launched Sulphur, a successor magazine to his earlier editorial master-work, Catepillar. He continued editing that magazine after he moved to Michigan in the mid-1980s, and some of the poets who contributed to that crucial publication were individuals such as Dennis Phillips and Jed Rasula, whose work attracted his attention while he was in residence in Southern California.

In addition to Mark Salerno’s Arshile, which ran for ten gorgeous issues in the 1990s, all of the magazines and off-shoot projects I have cited so far have ceased operation, but to imagine these canyons and wetlands of poetic activity as having only an archival context would be to mistake the poetic biosphere’s seeming dormancy. Two post-Beat magazines that are still in an active state of editorial renewal of the post-Beat are Pearl magazine, edited by Joan Jobe Smith, Barbara Hauk, and Marilyn Johnson, and Third Rail magazine, which was founded by Doren Robbins and Uri Hertz in the mid-1970s and continues to be intermittently published by Hertz. A full appreciation of the longevity of this pair of magazines in only possible, however, when one start composing a list of all the magazines that have come before, such as Electrum, which was published in Orange County and included the work of blacklisted poets such as Don Gordon. One of the editorial assistants of Electrum, Julia Stein, has continued to write her own inimitable blend of post-Beat, working class poetry in the years since Electrum stopped publishing. Class stratifications, it should be mentioned, certainly played more of a role in the development of all these magazines than has been acknowledged in this talk. Perhaps it is not completely an accident that two of the magazines that are still active have had editors such as Joan Jobe Smith and Doren Robbins, who are outspoken in terms of the influence of class on their poetics. Indeed, Smith’s husband, Fred Voss, is internationally recognized as one of the premier working class poets at work in the United States right now.

Finally, we need to consider the post-Beat poet-editor who has continued to be active in that role in each decade since he first began that work in the very early 1970s. Paul Vangelisti is the quintessential post-Beat editor in that he was the first one to speak up for the poets of Venice West in any significant way. It was due to Paul Vangelisti’s efforts that John Thomas had his first book of poems published when Thomas was in his early forties, and it was Paul Vangelisti who published Perkoff’s first book of poetry in over 15 years shortly before he died in 1974, and then brought out the posthumous collection that kept his work visible to those of us at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice who followed in his footsteps. Vangelisti also edited or co-edited the two crucial anthologies of Los Angeles poets in the first half of the 1970s, both of which included work by Perkoff and Thomas as well as Coastlines poets such as Alvaro Cardona-Hine and newer poets such as Holly Prado. In working as an editor, Vangelisti joined forces with the most iconic poet in Los Angeles, Charles Bukowski. Most people attending this talk would probably have expected to hear his name at the start of the talk, rather than the conclusion. This placement is not out of any disrespect for Bukoswki, whose best work has yet to receive its overdue praise from more than brave partisans such as Robert Peters. Bukowski’s literary magazine, which he co-edited with Neeli Cherkovski, is also part of the post-Beat in Los Angeles, and Laugh Literary’s three issues are more lively reading than two dozen issues of many contemporary magazines from college MFA programs. Bukowski’s foreward to the anthology he co-edited with Vangelisti and Cherkovski, is indeed one of the founding documents that any scholar interested in the post-Beat must quote from in order to provide a context for the critique.

In the years during which the United States was still futilely trying to win a post-colonial war in Vietnam, Vangelisti was adamantly post-Beat in being among the very first in the United States to demand a rigorous poetics that would account for the relationship between politics and the commodification of culture. Elsewhere, this kind of counter-reformation to the Beat impetus began to be known as Language writing, but Vangelisti’s avant-garde was more inclusive. In his outstanding series of magazines, from Invisible City to Boxcar to New Review of Literature and now the on-going magazine, OR, Vangelisti has served as the pacesetter for making an entire generation of poets in Los Angeles and elsewhere accessible to their readership.

As for myself, I suppose there are two periods in my inclinations towards the Beat and post-Beat. In coming up with the phrase, “The Self-Portrait School of Romantic Existentialism,” which appeared in my introduction to the anthology Poetry Loves Poetry in 1985, I suppose that I was acknowledging that my preference for publishing books by Harry Northup, Kate Braverman and Leland Hickman came from a belief that, as one critic has put it, “the Beat revolution remained unfinished.” On the other hand, my inclusion of Los Angeles poet-laureate Eloise Klein Healy in both of my Momentum Press anthologies, along with books by Holly Prado, Deena Metzger, and Alicia Ostriker reflected my suspicion that one of the primary ways the Beat revolution had not sufficiently addressed its contradictions was its lack of support for women poets.

Is it still possible to be post-Beat? In Los Angeles, the answer is a resounding yes. The active presence of a poetry performance troupe called the Carma Bums is in and of itself a cantilevered affirmation of the post-Beat. I’ll grant you that the recent death of Scott Wannberg, who has to be a first-ballot candidate for the Beat Hall of Fame, will certainly prove to be a grievous blow to this group’s activities, but one cannot consider the post-Beat to be finished as a living chain replete with call and response. All of this is to say that the work of reclamation has hardly commenced.

Postmodernism is an age of pervasive doubt, but some certainties seem to retain uncommon endurance; for instance, the fact that the post-Beats in Los Angeles have not been provided any proportionate room within the postmodern, and it ‘s not easy to say if it will happen in our lifetimes. Going on a third path of resistance, the choice of those who are post-Beat to make a haven of Los Angeles is perhaps their saving grace. At least, the facts of their contribution cannot be resolutely ignored. They have little doubt about their need to be given a place in any account of Los Angeles’s cultural history. As that place becomes more comprehensible, so too will the space in which their precursors reveled in spontaneous audacity. Alan Golding once commented that one is an outlaw right up to the instant when suddenly one is a classic. The post-Beats are outlaw classics in the making. TO BE AN OUTLAW IN CLEAR SIGHT OF THE DOMINANT CULTURE AND STILL BE OVERLOOKED, TO BE TRANSGRESSIVE IN SUCH A WAY THAT THE DOMINANT CULTURE CANNOT FIGURE OUT A WAY TO TAKE WHAT YOU DO INTO ACCOUNT, that is what it means to be post-Beat. If Los Angeles has marvelous light for the culture industry of cinema, it has also has the marvelous radiance of the writing of its poets, which in being Beat, became more fertile as it generated a subsequent, maverick insurgency that will continue to reverberate along the coastline and the canyons of Los Angeles.

One thought on “Bill Mohr: Becoming Beat and Post-Beat in L.A.

Leave a Reply