HOLD-OUTS: THE LOS ANGELES POETRY RENAISSANCE, 1948-1992 by Bill Mohr
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Talk to most British poetry readers and, if they know anything about American poetry beyond a few major names, it's more than likely that they'll point to San Francisco as the main centre of activity on the West Coast. The reason is simple. The Beats attracted attention to the city fifty or so years ago, and I'd guess that the identification of San Francisco with poetry still resonates in many people's minds. Mention Los Angeles, however, and it will be films, TV, and pop music that loom large in their thoughts. Some of them may refer to Charles Bukowski, though the fact of his having been located in Los Angeles might be attributed to his idiosyncratic tastes. Interestingly, these same readers, assuming they read prose, and especially crime novelists, will probably be able to come up with a few writers who have put Los Angeles on the literary map. Raymond Chandler is a classic example, along with James M.Cain and Ross MacDonald, and more recently there have been Walter Mosley, James Ellroy, and others. The ambience of the city seemingly lends itself to the production of tough prose rather than poetry. Or does it?
Bill Mohr suggests that a "comprehensive history" of poetry on the West Coast would necessarily cover an area stretching from Tijuana in the south to Vancouver, British Columbia, in the north. While he makes this point, along with several others which challenge well-worn assumptions ("Ginsberg and his friends, however, were only a small portion of the dispersed underground that was assaulting the zero-sum endgame of modern science's alliance with militaristic agendas"), his own focus is on Los Angeles. He makes it clear that it has had a strong tradition of poetry activity over the years, and though there were a few poets who had Beat connections it is Mohr's assertion that, on the whole, most poets in Los Angeles operated in a way that was neither Beat nor academic. In a sense they followed a third way, and it was a way that produced numerous little magazines and small press publications to highlight its work. But, as Mohr, points out: "In academic accounts of this period everything I have just mentioned is erased with thoroughness worthy of revisionist editorial work in an encyclopedia in USSR in 1938." I know exactly what he means, because the same is true of academic accounts of events in Britain.
Some early manifestations of what Mohr describes as the "renaissance" in Los Angeles can be seen in little magazines from the 1950s. California Quarterly and Coastlines were probably the most important ones, and while accessing complete sets of old little magazines is not easy there is a useful book that has material from the two publications in question. Poets of the Non-Existent City, edited by Estelle Gershgoren Novak (University of New Mexico Press, 2002), helps to demonstrate through poems what Mohr implies, that many of the poets had left/liberal leanings. Two of them, Thomas McGrath and Don Gordon, had links to the Communist Party and lost their jobs when they refused to co-operate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. A third poet, Edwin Rolfe, had been in the International Brigades in Spain, and would have been called before the Committee had he not died of a heart attack. Others, such as William Pillin, John Beecher, and Naomi Replansky, also had links to the left.
Mohr, after listing a few publications, says: "These magazines and their editors' projects addressed through their own poems and the material they selected for the magazine everything from labour issues to the atomic bomb to apartheid in South Africa. As such, the various eruptions of Beat poets, whether in North Beach or Venice West, between late 1955 and 1960 were more like tossing dry wood on hot coals than an unpredictable and spontaneous combustion." I suppose it would be true to say that the earlier poets had taken bigger chances when they decided to dissent from the status quo. I'm reminded of Nelson Algren's jibe at the Beats' "rebellion," when he said: "No-one is ever likely to be asked 'Are you now or have you ever been a Beatnik?' "
Mohr makes some interesting observations about the importance of Kenneth Patchen as a "role model of the poetics of stoic protest for an entire generation of West Coast poets." And he stresses that Patchen's work was excluded from the two anthologies that seemed to many people to identify the opposing schools of American poetry. Donald Allen's The New American Poetry 1945-1960 spoke for the Beats and other non-establishment poets, whereas Donald Hall's New Poets of England and America appeared to represent what was referred to as academic poetry. But, as Mohr says, both anthologies left out whole areas of poetry and ignored most of the poets active in Los Angeles.
A couple of Los Angeles poets did get into Allen's anthology. Stuart Perkoff and Bruce Boyd were associated with the Venice West community celebrated in Lawrence Lipton's colourful The Holy Barbarians. Mohr is keen to show that, although San Francisco is looked on as being a key Beat centre, there is actually a strong case to be made for suggesting that Venice West may have had a better claim to being a properly functioning community: "Venice West distinguishes itself by more than duration and density, however. Venice West was unique in its breadth of artistic experimentation and outlaw social behaviour on the part of its most significant founding poet, Stuart Perkoff. No other alternative poetic community in the United States between 1955 and 1960 held itself together under the leadership of a writer who engaged and defined his community's identity in all of the following activities at one point or another during those six years: a poetry workshop larger than a dozen people, jazz and poetry events, collage art, founding a coffeehouse named for the community, and poetry readings, all combined with a propensity for drug use that eventually ravaged the community."
What is fascinating about many of the Venice West poets is that they appear to have been almost indifferent to success, whether literary or social, and as a consequence published very little, other than in a scattering of obscure little magazines. It would seem that they were mostly happy to have their work directed only at fellow members of the community. There is a story, too, about Perkoff, and a couple of younger poets, Frank Rios and Tony Scibella, writing poems and then immediately burning them as if to show that the writing of them was enough.
By 1968 the Beat impulse had faded, and in Los Angeles poets gathered at Beyond Baroque, "a literary arts organisation established in a storefront building in Venice, California." It was in 1968 that Bill Mohr moved to Los Angeles and became involved with many of the poets and their activities. Discussing this period he raises interesting questions, such as when he mentions that: "Some poets in Los Angeles have been professionally involved with the movie or music industries as part of making a living, and included that experience as part of their poems." He then says, "one possible question concerns how much these poets' proximity to the film and music industries contributed to their self-imposed peripheral autonomy within American poetry." And furthermore: "The antinomian streak in American poetry constantly tempered whatever desire poets in Los Angeles might have felt to supplicate editors elsewhere for acceptance on any terms other than their own deeply grooved interstices of a canon self-constructed out of prolonged reading and sagacious dispute with immediately accessible peers."
Mohr provides a lively account of the history of Beyond Baroque, detailing its founding and development, naming the individuals who ran it, and explaining how the various activities associated with the centre often operated alongside those in other places, such as bookshops. He mentions the Papa Bach Bookstore ("the best selection of Marxist literature in Los Angeles") where readings were given by members of a poetry workshop that met at Beyond Baroque, and specifically refers to Leland Hickman whose long poem, "Tiresias," made an impact. Writing this review from a British perspective it's obviously sometimes difficult to know how interesting (a word I prefer to use instead of "good") someone like Hickman was. Very little work by many of the poets Mohr mentions has been easily available in this country, though an anthology like The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry edited by Alan Kaufman (Thunder's Mouth Press, 1999) might be a useful introduction to at least some of them.
Literary histories usually ignore the technical side of producing little magazines and small press books, but Mohr initially made a living as "a blueprint machine operator and typesetter," so knows just how much effort it takes to print something: "I remember sitting at the machine at Beyond Baroque, and simmering with frustration at how much time it was taking to get the material out." And once it was out, "distribution remained a nagging, almost overriding problem." Publishing poetry was "an economic zero—sum game," and though there were a few independent bookshops in Los Angeles willing to stock magazines and pamphlets getting the material to them was not easy. Anyone who has been involved with a little magazine will know what it's like carrying piles of the latest issue around bookshops and trying to collect the money from sales of earlier issues.
It was, perhaps, inevitable that as things became more institutionalised with grants and fellowships being sought, the usual complaints and arguments would arise. Mohr claims that the National Endowment for the Arts "seemed to rig the panels with writers who year after year passed over the applications of the Los Angeles-based writers." And, referring to an anthology he published, he says that none of the poets in it "had won a creative writing fellowship, despite repeated applications." At the same time, some poets complained about Beyond Baroque: "Other poets who were not part of what appeared to be a new inner circle at Beyond Baroque began to grumble at their reduced stature at Beyond Baroque. After years of building a scene into prominence, they felt they were being relegated to supporting roles and walk-on parts." A regular workshop split into two factions, each claiming the title of "Venice Poetry Workshop." It all sounds a long way from the days of California Quarterly and Coastlines, or the Venice West of Stuart Perkoff and his associates. Mohr also points to another factor affecting the nature of the local environment: "The local population within walking distance of both venues has transformed during the past forty years from a built-in audience of young people primarily interested in alternative culture to post-gentrification neighbourhoods dominated by individual commitment to portfolios of property values."
Charles Bukowski does have a place in Mohr's chronicle, though mainly for his involvements with a short-lived little magazine and an anthology of Los Angeles poets, and for his influence on some younger writers. His own work is too well-known for it to need explaining by Mohr. Hold-Outs performs a more-useful service by focusing on obscure, forgotten, and overlooked poets.
In closing I don't want to nit-pick, but I did spot a couple of minor errors. The 1930s radical poet Sol Funaroff is referred to as Funerol. And Bill Mohr says that the Hollywood screenwriter Albert Maltz was "Edwin Rolfe's friend and fellow soldier in the Spanish Civil War." He wasn't, but another one of the Hollywood Ten, Alvah Bessie, was and wrote a book called Men in Battle about his experiences in Spain.