As civilization advances, poetry almost necessarily declines. --Thomas Babington Macaulay
Following old Macaulay's dictum, today's poetry is either in steep decline as we boldly move onto the superhighway of One Wired World or poetry is fine and it's society that has sunk.
Either way, there is a publication dedicated to tuning in the universe of poetry as it rises--or falls--against the larger canvas of the modern world.
For more than 20 years, the nonprofit monthly newspaper Poetry Flash has reported on trends and offered a forum for poets, a constituency bitterly fragmented by style, philosophy or simply loudness.
Yes, Poetry Flash--a.k.a. the Flash--has included rock 'n' roll poets along with professors and scholars. It has even included poets who have never set pen to paper, raucous poets of the microphone whose main intention might be to rile an audience or draw a sympathetic tear for a miserable life.
Now, after years of focusing on Northern California from its home base in the Bay Area, the Flash is grappling with the Goliath that is Los Angeles. The paper has begun the prodigious task of including L.A.'s wild poetry scene in its regular coverage.
Editor and Publisher Joyce Jenkins is uniquely suited to navigating the shouts and whispers of modern poetry. A poet herself, Jenkins strongly believes in the power of poetry to literally change the world. Or, at least, to change people who can change the world.
"Poetry and literature . . . carry messages about our culture that we need to hear," she says from her small office in an industrial area of Berkeley. "Besides my own poetry, my life has been to try and help different kinds of poets talk to each other, to know other kinds of poetry exist, so we don't keep reinventing the aesthetic wheel."
This attitude has not gone unnoticed. The acknowledgment of her role reached a peak during May's meeting of the American Booksellers Assn. in Los Angeles. Jenkins was awarded the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award for Editor/Publisher. Assembled in her honor were many of the poets Poetry Flash has helped over the years, including Ishmael Reed, David Meltzer, Wanda Coleman and Luis Rodriguez.
Part of what drives Jenkins is her passion to communicate each new development to poets everywhere. With the problems all poets have in being published and garnering even the most meager support, it's important to have a vehicle that can be trusted for news, information and constructive criticism.
"Knowledge leads to, if not respect, at least improvement of the situation for all of us," she says.
I died and went to Hell & it was nothing like L.A.
Begun in 1972 as a free one-sheet calendar of readings in San Francisco and Berkeley, Poetry Flash helped promote the burgeoning small-press scene. The '70s and '80s were heady days for writers as grants flowed to arts groups. It was (relatively) easy for anybody to get published.
Asked by an editor to join the small staff in 1978, Jenkins brought along her poet's sensibility and experience as organizer of an international poetry festival.
Since becoming publisher in 1980, Jenkins has seen Poetry Flash grow to 32 pages, and its role greatly expand. It now focuses on poetry events throughout California, Arizona and New Mexico, with a circulation topping 19,000.
Its greatest challenge, though, is certainly the one Poetry Flash is tackling now: Reporting on the fragmented, decentralized Los Angeles poetry landscape.
Over the past several months the Flash has increased its L.A. listings and news until nearly half its calendar is devoted to Southern California. Due to L.A.'s sprawling nature, however, there's often the feeling that the area is a black hole that swallows up any attempt to bring coherence.
L.A. poet Carol Muske likens the poets here not to a community, but "to a collection of isolated beliefs, each belief vehement in its view of poetry." She admits that there isn't much discussion going on between these often feuding believers, who display animosity and suspicion about their own particular poetry turf.
"It's like the Bloods and Crips," Muske says. "At least we don't have poetry drive-by shootings."
Poetry Flash, already distributing several thousand free copies to Los Angeles bookstores, coffeehouses and colleges, hopes to bring these factions together.
"Poetry Flash may prove to be a sort of detente, a rapprochement, that may allow poets to talk with each other," Muske says. "At least they'll know what's going on."
This is just the beginning for Poetry Flash in Los Angeles, however. The paper has quickly eclipsed the efforts of now-defunct Out Loud magazine, its predecessor in compiling local poetry events.
Poet Richard Beban, who hosts readings at Midnight Special bookstore in Santa Monica, was once associated with Out Loud. He predicts that Poetry Flash may succeed where local publications have failed "because it probably has fewer indigenous enemies."
In Beban's view, two things give the Flash the edge: attitude and editor.
"It's serious about poetry, and poetry as literature, as something that is culturally alive." And Jenkins "treats poetry as news. She's like a real journalist. That's rare to find these days."
As if to announce its intentions, two of the three cover stories in the latest issue are about L.A. writers--a review of Peter Levitt's "Bright Root, Dark Root" and an obituary of Charles Bukowski.
The Flash also is sponsoring a reading series at Arundel Books on Beverly Boulevard. Although there are numerous other reading series all over L.A., Jenkins says that "the wonderful thing about the Arundel Books series is that they're mixing mainstream poets with local poets and emerging poets, and they're putting them in a local bookstore where people can hear them, where people can get to them.
"That's really admirable. And for L.A., that's new."
Listen, what are you reading this for?
Haven't you got bills to pay,
a movie you've been wanting to see,
a woman to love or a wife to ignore.
I'm here because it's raining,
and poets write poems when it rains --
The Flash has also covered the peculiarly Los Angeles phenomenon of "stand-up poetry."
Stand-up readings tread the borderlines between theater, performance art, comedy and, of course, poetry. Jenkins calls it "a kind of direct, usually personal, experience-based, narrative, rock 'em, sock 'em, maverick kind of poetry."
Stand-up poetry, however, is only the latest permutation of the spoken-word movement, an ongoing evolution of solo performers who may be poets--like Anne Waldman and Jack Foley--or storytellers--like Spaulding Gray and Josh Kornbluth--or actors--like Anna Devere Smith and Charles Dean. Not surprisingly, modern spoken word took hold in L.A.
Los Alamitos' New Alliance Records started out with punk but, when musicians such as Exene Cervenka and Henry Rollins returned to their first love of poetry and writing, the label became a major proponent of spoken word on record and CD.
New Alliance has achieved visibility with such writers as Wanda Coleman, Holly Prado, Pleasant Gehman and Steve Abee. Spoken-word impresario Harvey Kubernik, who produces the poetry recordings for New Alliance, has praise for Poetry Flash's efforts in Southern California, if simply because they're now paying attention to literary activity below what he calls the "Mason-Dixon Line."
"If you lived south of area code 408, you didn't even send them a press release," he says about Poetry Flash's Northern California orientation up until the past year. "But there have been some real steps taken, and I've seen the epicenter move down even to San Diego and Orange County."
Kubernik also sees the value in Poetry Flash's outreach to a younger generation.
"Right now the paper is reaching people who are having their first exposure to poetry--15-, 16-, 18-year-olds, kids in college--and they're not recoiling from poetry!"
Despite years of neglect from Establishment funding sources, Poetry Flash has managed to survive on sporadic donations and a few loyal advertisers. Now, at last, Jenkins sees the public's interest in poetry hitting a new peak.
"It's almost like the anti-literacy malaise of our country is coming from the top down," she says, "and the regenerative literary energy that may save us is coming from the bottom up."
Lately this energy has been stimulated--literally--by the "java house" explosion. As the rage for coffee cafes continues, an almost bohemian literary affectation flourishes in its wake. For every long-established reading series at a cafe or bookstore, there are dozens of new places for poets to read, and most are coffee galleries.
All these new venues have flooded Poetry Flash's calendar and pumped up the need for more coverage. Fortunately, the paper has just received a $15,000 grant from the Lannan Foundation to help distribution and promotion efforts in Los Angeles. And, for the first time, Poetry Flash has received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, which will help stabilize its finances as it expands.
Jenkins' earnest, total devotion comes across as genuine, even inspirational. In accepting the award from the Before Columbus Foundation, she eloquently spoke of Poetry Flash's ultimate goal:
"To heal--and to meet the needs of poets and writers, cultivating a climate that allows for and encourages the transformative power of art, of the word, of poetry."