LONG BEACH POETRY
Joan Jobe Smith & Fred Voss
Poetry began with a Big Bang for me in 1973 when I was an undergraduate at California State University Long Beach and read, an assigned text for a poetry workshop, Charles Bukowski's THE DAYS RUN AWAY LIKE WILD HORSES OVER THE HILLS. Then the day my poetry professor, Dr. Richard E. Lee, after reading a poem of mine about the go-go girl days I'd just quit to literally clean up my act by going back to college, called me a "female Bukowski," a ludicrous oxymoron, suddenly that Big Bang became a Creative Universe and I quickly changed my college major from Eclectic Confusion to Creative Writing in Poetry and gravely wondered, as I still do, just what I'd do with a Bachelor of Arts degree (later to be fortified with a Master of Fine Arts) in poetry. My commitment to dubious bohemia and obvious impecuniousness quickly became a joke to my middle-class, conservative Orange County friends in suburbia (where I lived from 1967 until 1990 when I married poet Fred Voss and moved to Long Beach), a joke that was validated to their delight by Woody Allen's 1974 movie Sleeper when the character played by Diane Keaton responded, big-eyed, when asked what her college major was: "Poetry."
The world back then, though, seemed afire with poetry, no doubt ignited by the all-we-need-is-love lyrics of the Beatles, especially John Lennon's, and fanned a bit, at least here in America, by the best-selling poet Rod McKuen. And here in Southern California, in Los Angeles, just 25 miles away from Long Beach, the ubiquitous homeboy Charles Bukowski was strapping his fat saddlebags of tough-loving-and-living narrative and metaphor and parataxis onto that horse called Poetry. And every male poet I knew at CSULB (and maybe some of the professors, too) wanted to be Charles Bukowski. His straightforward free verse, lust-loving, and self-dramatized temperament made writing poetry seem easy and the CSULB English Department's Creative Writing major offer made it okay to try.
Every week there were faculty poetry readings that included the then-wunderkind Gerald Locklin. Hip to what was happening in the modern poetry scene as a result of the local literary phenomenon of Charles Bukowski, Locklin was responsible for procuring Bukowski's early works for the university bookstore to assign to his contemporary literature students and might have been the first Bukowski admirer in academia to do so. Students flocked to off-campus beerbars for readings of their own, many often attended by faculty. Small literary magazines, published by CSULB students, some with university grants, some from personal penny-pinching, began to proliferate: Leo Mailman's NAUSEA (later named MAELSTROM REVIEW, John Kay's MAO, my first three issues of PEARL, when I was writing under the name of Joan Smith. Thus, in the early '70s, unknowingly, unintentionally, in spite of fierce competition and the unruly reign of male chauvinism, commonality and being there the main spark, Long Beach, California, began to become a writers’ community.
If a mutual admiration society, however ambivalent or covertly envious of each other, brings a group of writers or artists together, essential to its spirit and inspiration is the aesthetics, real or imagined, of its landscape. Also essential: its libation. The Bloomsbury group had its rose-covered menses and spiked tea; the Algonquin gang had its skyscrapers and martini-times; the Beats their fisherman's wharf and cheap tokay, and Long Beach poets had their beerbars: first the FortyNiner across the street from OSULB, then the Reno Room. Now the younger poets get the jitters in coffeehouse hangouts. And their landscape is Long Beach: a cosmopol-collegiate, multi-cultural City on the Edge offering its artists year-round sunshine, palm tree-fringed streets, seabreezed bohemian liberalness and low-cost housing with its backdoor ajar to the nearby LA. vibe soup of cooking movie, television, and music industries. Leo Mailman, who was born and reared in Maine and never wrote a poem until he moved to Long Beach, said to me once when we sipped wine: "Long Beach is a magical place."
Poetry magic began to subside in the late '70s and '80s due to arts grants and funding cutbacks snipped by President Reagan's Republican administration, inflationary postage and paper prices, and artistic hopelessness thereby incurred. Little magazine publishing dwindled. John Kay took a permanent teaching post in Germany; I pursued more pragmatic pursuits such as novel writing and now use my unpublished manuscripts for doorstops and pressing flowers; Leo Mailman went back home to Maine where he died of Lou Gehrig's Disease in 1991.
Applezaba: Press's d.h. lloyd, however, hung in there and produced a few, but respectable anthologies, including PEN-award winner and CSULB prof Ray Zepeda's acclaimed HORSE MEDICINE and Gerald Locklin's modern classic GOLD RUSH. During this quiet time in Long Beach, Locklin began a literary career in Great Britain and Germany where, in 1984, the publication of THE CASE OF THE MISSING BLUE VOLKSWAGEN brought him much success and international recognition.
Soon, in the middle '80s, a Renaissance of Long Beach Poetry began with the emergence of CSULB's fine GENRE and Murray McNeil III's fully-packed litmag AK.A. and his hosting of poetry readings at the now defunct nightclub, BOGART'S. Such was the exuberance, springing forth into the center stage such poetic talent as Donna Hubert (who'd also find much success in the U.K. with her award-winning work), Jill Young, Lisa Glaft, Catherine Lynn, Nicole Manning, Robert DeLaura, Keith Dodson, Charles Webb, and Fred Voss, that my long-time poetry friends, Marilyn Johnson (armed with her new P.C.) and Barbara Hauk and I decided to reprise, after a 12-year hiatus, PEARL. The refurbished writers community was so lively that poet De Laura, shortly before he died at age 36 in 1986, predicted that Long Beach would some day become a North Beach, not considering, however, one important and rather interesting aspect of that concept: Long Beach, founded in 1887, is a city not by a Bay and a Golden Gate Bridge, but by a Harbor (the world's 3rd largest) and oil islands (producing 1/3 of U.S. crude oil) and a green-painted Vincent Thomas Bridge - and faces south. Poets, sure enough, dwell in Long Beach in plenitude, each poet as diverse, many as esprit de corps as were the North Beach Beats in San Francisco: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, et al. Also, the small press publishers, all, so far, poets too, share a raison d'etre not dissimilar to Ferlinghetti's City Lights Press: to provide a place in a publishing wilderness for the unique, outsider, sometimes "dirty realism" narrative poetry so distinctive to both North and South Beaches of California. In addition to re-establishing myself, now inserting my maiden name Jobe between the Joan and Smith, as a poet and a publisher during the mid-80s' Long Beach Poetry Renaissance, I was fortunate to meet up with Fred Voss who was just beginning to write poetry and establish himself as an important voice and working-class poet par excellence who'd quickly become known in England via his publication of GOODSTONE by Bloodaxe Books and here now writes about his own experiences during that time and place:
Long Beach has been Muse for poets aplenty, whether coming here for the Major, or a steppingstone on their way someplace else, or to audition their voices for a one-night stand or a lifetime of poetry. And now approaching fin-de-siecle, the Long Beach writers community's architecture is once again changing. A lively and younger population of poets, some hanging around town longer these days to nail a Master of Fine Arts in poetry now offered at CSULB, include Glenn Bach, T. Thrasher, Jackie Joice, Julienne Andazola, G. Murray Thomas, Donna Gebron to name only a few. Feisty young coffeehouse poetry coordinators such as Charles Ellick (who recently split town, though) host the hottest poetry happenings, these days: the Slams, Jams, and Marathons. Younger publisher Hayley R. Mitchell, an award-winning poet as well, is revving up SHEILA-NA-GIG. G. Murray Thomas, for two years now, has manned the sassy poetry calendar of events and state-of-SoCal poetry commentary NEXT which has become necessary reading for local vocals.
It's been nearly 25 years since the original Long Beach poets came together. Maybe they originally came here for the creative writing major for their resume. Maybe they came because of inspiration from Bukowski or an in-the-know English prof like Locklin. Maybe they came for the ambiance, camaraderie and the Muse of this paradisial port city that invites them to stay to study, write, or teach. Whatever brings writers together, and no matter what they write: blank verse, free verse, or in-yer-face slam, it's fun to have them around town. Writers, especially poets, are a fascinating bunch and always bring to the community, good cultural carpenters that they are, the inestimable bonus of their individual magic.