Poetry for Southern California
A HIGHER FORM OF POLITICS: The Rise of a Poetry Scene, Los Angeles, 1950-1990
Book by Sophie Rachmuhl
Otis Books/Beyond Baroque
INNERSCAPES: 10 Portraits of L.A. Poets
DVD directed by Sophie Rachmuhl
HOLD-OUTS: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948 - 1992
Book by Bill Mohr
University of Iowa Press (ww.uiowapress.org)
Reviewed by G. Murray Thomas
I moved to SoCal, specifically Laguna Beach, in 1987. I quickly discovered Laguna Poets, a weekly poetry reading, where I met other poets and heard about other readings. By 1990, I regularly attended readings all over SoCal, and became more and more involved in the poetry scene. At the time, that scene was thin and scattered, but it was also growing and coalescing, turning into something large and exciting.
So I read these two books with great interest. They both cover L.A. poetry right up to the point when I got involved. They provide information and insight into where the scene I discovered came from and how it developed. What they describe fits well with what I experienced.
Although they do overlap, the two books work well together, as they approach the scene from two completely different perspectives. Bill Mohr's Hold-Outs tells the inside story. Mohr was deeply involved in L.A. poetry, especially the Venice scene and Beyond Baroque, from the mid 70s to the present day, including publishing Momentum magazine, and helping found the Beyond Baroque workshop.
Sophie Rachmuhl, on the other hand, is a complete outsider, a French non-poet. She had originally planned to make a documentary about Charles Bukowski and his influence on the L.A. poetry scene. That became Innerscapes, a collection of interviews with L.A. poets in 1988. Out of that came her doctoral dissertation on the L.A. poetry scene, which was then edited and translated into English for A Higher Form of Politics (all of this over a 20-year period).
A Higher Form of Politics starts with an overview of American poetry in the 20th Century, focusing on the academic/street poetry (or however you want to phrase it) split, and the development of regional poetry scenes, often centered on local small presses. In that context, Los Angeles was an outlier, certainly outside the academic world, but also ignored by the major regional scenes, New York and San Francisco. There were obvious connections to the rest of the country, but, to a great deal, L.A. poetry was left to develop on its own. (This can be seen in the Venice Beats, who were often dismissed by the San Francisco movement.)
Within L.A., separate scenes and communities developed, often completely independent of each other. Each community developed its own taste, not necessarily a specific style, but its own notions of form, meaning and purpose.
Rachmuhl examines the Venice Beats in the 50s, the Watts Writers Workshop and related groups in the 60s, and the growth of Beyond Baroque in the 70s. In the late 70s and throughout the 80s, with the rise of multiculturalism and identity art, many separate scenes sprang up: Latino, women's, queer. She outlines how all these different scenes did and didn't interact with each other.
But by the late 80s these various groups were starting to come together. While it couldn't be called a unified community, the various different groups at least interacted. Rachmuhl credits three groups with helping this happen. Beyond Baroque served as a central location for poets from all over the area. Spoken Word drew performance-oriented poets from all groups, and expanded the number and type of venues open to poetry. The entrance of punk rockers, such as Exene Cervenka and Henry Rollins, into the scene brought new audiences with them. All of these contributed to the sense that there was local L.A. poetry scene.
The companion Innerscapes DVD contains ten interviews with poets active during the late 80s, some of whom are discussed in the book. They provide a cross-section of the various poetry communities, and the various approaches to poetry. Although she made the documentary before she wrote the book, the poets represent the various communities she discusses, including the Watts Writers (Kamau Daaood), Beyond Baroque (Leland Hickman), performance poets (La Loca) and the punk rockers (Dave Alvin). Many of the poets are still active today, including Daaood, Alvin (as a musician), Laurel Ann Bogen, Jack Grapes and Dr. Mongo. Wanda Coleman, the first poet profiled, passed away a year ago, and was a force on the L.A. scene right up to her passing. And it was a surprise to see, in a group of high school poets, Beck Hansen, now better known as just Beck.
With the benefit of hindsight, the documentary does give hints as the future of the L.A. poetry scene. Just presenting the poets together gives a sense of the larger poetry scene. As does the fact that many of the poets, despite their different backgrounds, share similar ideas about the importance of poetry. Also, the rising importance of performance is reflected in both the discussions, which often touch on performance, and the footage of the poets reading; Bogen and Daaood are especially impressive in how their delivery enhances their words.
Innerscapes is a very useful addition to the book, humanizing many of the trends discussed. It also works well as a stand-alone documentary.
Hold-Outs covers much of the same territory, but from an insider's perspective. Bill Mohr was active in both the growth of Beyond Baroque and the L.A. small press scene. He edited Momentum magazine, and had connections to many other magazines from this period. He goes into much greater detail about the personalities involved and their poetry. He analyzes the work of specific poets (such as Stuart Perkoff and Leland Hickman, who both get deep analysis of their works), and the styles of various magazines.
He primarily focuses on the Venice scene, both the Venice Beats and Beyond Baroque (which is located in Venice). More important than geography, though, is the fact that both were based heavily on print, on small press magazines. Beyond Baroque actually started as a magazine before it became a venue. Again, Mohr's interest is primarily in printed works, which reflects the time he is writing about, when print was primary.
He does, near the end, expand his view to take in the other L.A. scenes, the Watts Writers and other multicultural poets. He also ends with the spoken word scene, and its influence on the overall SoCal poetry community.
Personally I was slightly disappointed that both books ended in the early 90s, because the following decade was a very exciting time for L.A. poetry. The various communities did come together, and there was a poetry explosion. These two books do a very good job of laying the groundwork which enabled that explosion, but stop just short of the real excitement. It's like a novel which sets up all the plot points, but never gets to the climax. I guess we'll just have to wait for someone else to tell that story.