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L.A. Poets: The Meter Is Still Running

<i> See's novel of the Pacific Rim, "Making History," will be published by Houghton-Mifflin this fall</i>

Eleven in the morning and Chatterton’s Book Store is packed. Outside, it’s metallic and smoggy, Vermont Avenue on a Saturday morning the way it’s been for 30, 40 years. The Dresden Room, where stand-up drinkers ingest the brown stuff for hours on end. Sarno’s, where the proprietor got shot a while ago. Down a little farther, the College Grill, which sells balanced meals to thrifty students from LACC.

Street Corner College

We stand now and laugh

Watching the girls go by.

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Betting on slow horses, drinking cheap

gin.

Up here, next to a club where live jazz is going on--at this hour--battered intellectuals drink cappuccino. Bachelors slink by, carrying Saturday’s clothes to the Laundromat. Chatterton’s is PACKED. It looks like a funeral, a wedding, both. A hundred people eat potato chips and blather on.

Folding chairs have been set up, crammed in. Today is part of a weeklong Los Angeles Poetry Festival, but the poets are only doing more, this week, of what they do all the time: They sing. They perform. They read. They go into elementary schools and get the kids to write books. They generate fights and then make them up. They write. And because, a few years back, the L.A. Times gave up running reviews of poetry, Los Angeles poets picket, and protest. And then go out and read to all the others in L.A. who have an aching place in their souls that only poetry can fill.

I washed my shirt in the rain.

It’s probably radioactive . . . .

So this festival is just a thickening up of what these people (Jack Grapes, Harry Northup, Holly Prado, Wanda Coleman, Austin Straus, Manzanar Gamboa, Ko Won, Diane Wakoski, Laurel Ann Bogen, Charles Bukowski, Kate Braverman, Tim Steele, Lee Rossi, Bill Mohr, Bob Peters, Lawrence Spingarn, Eloise Klein Healy, William Vollman, Michael C. Ford, Terry Wolverton) do all the time here in L.A. Live the poet’s life.

Because the East won’t publish them, they do it themselves. Today, a publishing retrospective “celebrates 40 years.” Somebody has begun talking about Small Presses, 40 years ago. Alexandra Garrett, co-founder of Coastlines. From back here you can’t see her, but you do see the periodicals she holds up. She’s brought a hell of a stack. “Here’s Coastlines from 1960,” she says, and it’s like when you first fell in love: “It had Charles Bukowski in it” (you see the room in the old downtown library, where you could read “little” magazines), “and Estelle Gershgoren” (you remember Estelle dancing at a party with Max Novak, who would become her second husband) “and Bert Meyers” (Bert, handsome and devastatingly mean, telling me, over meat loaf at the College Grill, that I had no talent whatsoever) “and Tom McGrath.” (Just as America’s Blacklist was getting itself in order, McGrath was fired from City College.)

Who Fired McGrath?

The rhetorical question scrawled in white chalk on scores of crumbling sidewalk squares up and down Vermont Avenue. “And Vahan K. Gregory.” (He hated a lady whose talent he envied, chunky female over at the big school.)

The kitchen cleaned, at last she relaxes;

Crosses her buxom bones at the knee

Poetess Laureate of U.C.L.A. . . .

Alexandra is still going on, waving periodicals in the air: “Jascha Kessler, the Emerson Review. Mumble, mumble, mumble. Here’s a Statement from 1959. It didn’t have an awful lot in it, and it wasn’t very good.” The audience listens with rapt attention and terrible tenderness. The printed word had promised to take them out of the brown world of the Dresden Room, or the confining dimensions of suburbia (Anne Stanford had four kids, and wrote about Magellan circumnavigating the world).

A whole world here today. Michael C. Ford, publisher of the Mount Alverno Press (1971-83), and the Sunset Palms Hotel Journals, speaks incongruously, as elder statesman. As a poet, he’s forever young, chronicling our great escape South:

Noon! into the oblivion

Of sun in Culiacan . . .

The windshield is a translucent

Bug Cemetery

But Michael remembers 30 years ago, when word-struck kids collected money for Kenneth Patchen’s Surgery Fund. Does it seem strange that, over at UCLA, or USC, or New York City , days go by when no one says Kenneth Patchen’s name, but here everybody nods, smiles, remembers?

Is it only death that bothers you?

So many have done it, brother.

So many have turned up their poor toes.

But before Michael Ford, there’s James Krusoe--tall, handsome, elegant in faded jeans, a legend. Krusoe teaches what may be the finest creative-writing class in the city. He measures success not by his own fine poetry but by his students’. (Erika Taylor has just sold her first novel, right out of his class.) His Santa Monica Review, beautifully printed, is student-oriented, quietly professional. You realize that a third of the people here are no more than 25 years old, students, ex-students, all of them with the sense of being in on something, getting to be part of poetic Los Angeles.

During a break, people get up, run out to feed their parking meters. Harry Northup, curator for this day, lines up more poet-publishers. The day is running behind. A few toddlers play in the aisles. The purpose of today, Northup tells everyone, is to tape all this, to get this on record. Art is long, Time isn’t.

Presses come into this world, two or three people work their brains out for five or eight or 15 years, and fall away for a while to get their strength back. The audience listens with an awful intensity to Leland Hickman, who suffers plainly from emphysema but who, in earlier times, published Bachy (out of the now defunct Papa Bach Bookstore) and Temblor. These are hefty, beautiful volumes, full of Kate Braverman, Deena Metzger, Jack Grapes, Bill Pillen, Jim Krusoe, Wanda Coleman, Bob Peters. (If this were Bloomsbury instead of L.A., they’d be the Group , and everybody knows it.)

There seem to be two new and effective ways to “get the good word out.” Holly Prado, of the newly formed Cahuenga Press, explains that it’s a poets’ cooperative. The six poets who belong (Prado, James Cushing, Phoebe MacAdams, Bill Mohr, Harry Northup, Cecilia Woloch) drop money into the kitty until there’s enough for a book. Then they all work on it. Then they sell it. Prado is happy, looking at another book coming out.

Bill Mohr (who also edited Bachy for a time, and then published momentum, and “Poetry Loves Poetry, 1985,” an anthology of 62 Los Angeles poets) has discovered videotape, “the chapbook of the ‘90s. It costs $60 to make a 30-minute tape,” Mohr says. “You send the tapes to universities, and to cable-access stations on television. It’s surprising how many people hear the poetry.”

By 5 in the afternoon, Chatterton’s feels like an Indian bazaar. I get depressed. I’m trying to take notes on 40 years of literary history here. I know these people. I know Kate Braverman and Eloise Klein Healy and Holly Prado, but I don’t know the scene . It’s their scene!

Then Jacqueline de Angelis and Aleida Rodriguez, the co-publishers of rara avis and Books of a Feather Press, appear to make their presentation. They’re women; they’re beautiful; they’re Latin; they’re lesbian. Suddenly everybody has to put quarters into their parking meters. The two pretty ladies explain to an almost empty room that they wanted a magazine that would be fair to women and men alike. They thank Myrt and Eileen over at Gemini Graphics in Marina, who seem to be the two patron saints of all L.A. poetry, printing on credit, never withholding their support. Jacqueline and Aleida say that they trained parrots to support their magazine, that they were always treated like girls : “There was no sense,” one of them says, “that we could actually fill up a table of contents!” Seven issues of rara avis, two books, four postcards. Six years of their lives. (And people aren’t going to like this, but the men in this gigantic party didn’t come back until Jacqueline and Aleida finished.) You might even say that the guys treated the ladies like New York treats L.A.

Then Jack Grapes comes on to talk, about his Bomb Shelter Press. He’s been working at this since 1975, a poet as well as a publisher. He’s chubby. He’s cute. He’s wearing wide-bottom floppy shorts you wear at home and pray no one knocks on the door. He talks about (and this seems even scarier than a pair of lovely Latin parrot-training lesbians) selling ads to make his periodicals pay off. Then he says, “It’s not about the money. It can’t be about the money. The point is to create something out of that which you love.” He explains how he got those ads. The audience, newly returned, shivers.

The withdrawal of West Coast critical attention has left these Los Angeles poets--maybe a hundred of them?--in paradoxically pleasing isolation. Ignored, they’ve learned to value and glorify their own landscape:

Up to Topanga the road cuts

down to the muscle, a sea-laid matrix

of rock and shell the creek carves through . . .

But they still mirror society; even here, there’s an in-crowd and an out-crowd. They, like any other writers, are trapped between failure and success (suspicious of affluent outfits like the Symposium Press, where poet Charles Gullans puts out impeccable volumes). By relentless publication and writing, Los Angeles poets have constructed an inevitable paradigm of success. The lack of critical recognition? “For writers living here,” Kate Braverman says, “it means there are no literary taboos. No one’s been watching, because for so long no one cared.”

After eight hours, I trail down Vermont Avenue to the car. The jazz group is performing now. Down the street, customers at the Dresden Room are pouring it in. I’m blitzed with names, life stories, staggering under an armload of books. Back at Chatterton’s, they’re not even halfway done. They’ll be here until midnight. And into the next century, going strong.


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