Reading Bill Mohr, Hold Outs: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948-1992

Bill Mohr

Twice I’ve seen the poet and critic Bill Mohr hold aloft a copy of Laurence Goldstein’s Poetry Los Angeles. Mohr has then told his audience that anyone who wants to know something more about the history of L.A. poetry had best read Goldstein’s book.

On both occasions, he was interrupted: Hey Bill! Your book is pretty great too!

I’ll have something to say about Goldstein next month. Right now, I’ll second the audience endorsement: Hold Outs, published in 2011, remainsan indispensible guide to the region’s poetic history, correcting the view, still axiomatic in some quarters, that L.A.= Beats+Bukowski.

Mohr’s subtitle promises a survey of “the Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance,” a knowing nod to Warren French’s The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.Yet Mohr has no interest in reviving the old SoCal-NorCal tussle over cultural bragging rights. His aim is instead to reveal the shifting institutional and personal networks which sustained poetic production and audiences.

Far from indulging in regional rivalry, Mohr considers L.A. and San Francisco nodes of a larger west coast network that also included San Diego, Fresno, Portland, Vancouver, and so on. Writers moved back and forth among these cities, sharing in their new towns what they’d learned from the old, and reading the work of their peers wherever it was written. While each city comprised a distinct cultural ecosystem, all echoed and elaborated on innovations imported from the others.

Central to this west coast congeries were the small magazines that began appearing after World War II. Some established themselves for years at a time as significant cultural institutions. Others appeared irregularly for a few seasons before burning out. Still others were so small that they’d now be called zines: mimeographed, saddle-stapled, and passed from hand to hand like samizdat. Collectively, they comprised a “small press movement” whose influence spanned the entire West Coast and remained distinctive from the trans-Mississippi East. Hold Outs shows how small presses – few with government or university support – built and ultimately sustained vibrant literary communities, defiantly independent from the Cold War era’s consensus-enforcing institutions.

More narrowly, Mohr focuses his attention on the L.A. neighborhoods where the small press movement first flourished: West Los Angeles and, particularly, Venice. I would not be surprised if some readers have found themselves frustrated with a bookwhose subtitle,The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, seems to promise a regional survey. Instead of metropolitan L.A.’s 4,000 square miles, readers get the 3.2 square miles of what was, in the day, a “disreputable” and beach suburb.

When Mohr does discuss developments beyond the westside, it’s in very small doses. He devotes just two paragraphs to the Watts Writers Workshop and three to the East L.A.’s Chicano arts movement. A couple of Asian-American poets (Amy Uyematsu and Sesshu Foster) get a shout out, but none of the city’s other communities get so much as a mention (I’m thinking particularly of the city’s Iranian poets, profiled in 2012 by Majid Naficy.

Mohr is quite aware of his silences. He makes a point of directing readers to critical work that fills in some of the gaps, particularly Sarah Schrank (Art and the City: Civic Imagination and Cultural Authority in Los Angeles), Raúl Villa (Barrio-logos: Space and Place in Urban Chicano Literature and Culture), Daniel Widener (Black Arts West), and Terry Wolverton (Insurgent Muse, regarding L.A.’s Women’s Building). Still, the book could stand a cover more aligned with its contents.

Those who open the cover, ignore the subtitle, and read the book are likely to discover entire swaths of forgotten literary history. For me, the earliest chapters were a revelation, introducing names almost entirely unfamiliar to me: Thomas McGrath, William Pillin, Don Gordon, Josephine Ain and others. They found their voices in the pages of magazines like California Quarterly, Coastlines, and Variegation(later Recurrence) whose editors, now all but forgotten, lay the foundation an emergent postwar poetics. Some in this group soon moved away – L.A. is and was a transient city – and others died here. As they dispersed, though, yet another group emerged, associated – again, loosely – with Stuart Perkoff’s Venice West Café, ground zero for reconstructing L.A.’s mythic – and brief – beat era.

In these early chapters, Mohr develops a theme that carries him through the book: that L.A. poetry is thrice-marginalized. A comparison of the authors contributing to L.A. and national publications demonstrates (if a demonstration is needed) that the east coast literary establishment studiously ignored what was going on in Southern California. Mohr is particularly irked by the continued misunderstanding and casual dismissal of Stuart Perkoff, Gary Boyd, William Pillin, John Thomas, and others. Establishment anthologies didn’t print their work and, later, the NEA didn’t fund it. To add insult to injury, even UCLA and USC booked “nationally known poets” for their reading series, ignoring the frenetic activity right under their noses.

Mohr devotes considerable effort to contesting the received wisdom on SoCal poets of the 50s and 60s – that they tossed the received tradition overboard, preferring long lines of undisciplined free verse whose conversational language and domestic settings differed from prose only in its deployment of line breaks. Drawing from both published poems and from recently available archival sources, Mohr meticulously makes the case that practitioners – Stuart Perkoff in particular – thought long and hard about the demands of craft.

Yet marginalization wasn’t just imposed from the east coast: L.A. poets contended with it at home as well. Mohr pointedly cites David James’ remark that poetry “is of all the arts the least useful to the film industry, and in its recent forms least compatible with its ethos.” Many of the city’s poets, in turn, considered their work an “antithesis to everything assumed by Hollywood.”

Perkoff’s Venice West circle expended surprisingly little effort to assemble and publish work that had appeared in the small press magazines. Perkoff himself was especially chary of ambition’s temptations. Few of his poems were available until his collected works came out in 1998, nearly a quarter century after his death. Even now, Bruce Boyd’s work, considered by his peers some of the best of the era, remains buried in anthologies and defunct magazines. Mohr characterizes him as a “Beat poet for whom… indifference was not a pose, but a genuine outgrowth of his studies of Zen.”

Wholehearted embrace of artistic purity sometimes went to romantic extremes. Mohr reports that Perkoff and friends would sometimes spend a night writing and sharing poems. Then, at dawn, they would go to the beach – and then burn the manuscripts. Does there now exist an MFA professor anywhere in the country who would assign a writing prompt and then meet with students at the rising of the sun for such a literary auto da fé?

It’s in this sense that L.A.’s poets were “hold outs” – hold outs against a stultifying culture and its material temptations. Unfortunately, this has made many of these figures co-conspirators in the assassination of their own legacies. It’s a tribute to Mohr that he has intervened decisively before the rest of us forgot them entirely. As it was, the poets loosely associated with Perkoff and the short-lived Venice West died, dispersed, or went dark, diminished by their own demons.

Beyond Baroque

Cities abhor a vacuum, and the book’s second half begins with yet another group of poets and another shelf of little magazines. The center of activity remained in Venice, at a newly created performance and publication space, Beyond Baroque. Founded in 1969 by George Drury Smith, Beyond Baroque now ranks among the oldest continuing cultural centers in the country. Though no longer as central to the city’s poetic life, it remains a significant center of vigorous defiance to a culture often indifferent to the art.

While Mohr writes the first half of Hold Outswith the scholarly sensibilities expected from an English professor, the second half reads like memoir. Long before he picked up his Ph.D., Mohr, a young poet, fully immersed himself in the new world created around Beyond Baroque, Papa Bach bookstore, and their publishing and public reading programs. He participated in several of the consequential publishing projects he describes, notably Bachy and Momentum, and edited two milestone anthologies featuring the most consequential younger poets.

It’s here that Mohr really hits his stride. He describes in considerable detail what it took in the 1970s to publish the little magazines that were poetry’s lifeblood. The process of typesetting Momentum at Beyond Baroque’s NewComp Graphics Center required that Mohr spend hours, “simmering with frustration,” as he coaxed, prodded, and forced the machinery to do as he bid. Leland Hickman’s editorial work (Bachy, Boxcar, Temblor) also “required a ferocious amount of energy to sustain.” Yet, as Mohr amply demonstrates, it is due to such efforts that the work of that era got into print. Few publishers outside California would touch it.

The lesson Mohr derives from his experience is this: “creative community” doesn’t just pop into being. It’s an invention, an assemblage, an act of will. As such, it requires work, the work of poets, of course, but more importantly of editors, publishers, typesetters, binders, performance impresarios, and a small platoon cultural entrepreneurs. Mohr takes particular delight in comparing the rosters of published poets across several little magazines, noting who was included and excluded where. In doing so, he exposes the evolving networks that made the writing possible and that created a sense – albeit amorphous, shifting, and contested – of shared identity and purpose.

For all his concern with cultural associations and their institutional nodes, Mohr decisively rejects in both parts of his book the reductionism that glibly slots poets into one-dimensional  movements and schools. He recalls with considerable distaste the invention, in Lawrence Lipton’sHoly Barbarians, of a version of the Venice Beat era which flattened the diversity and texture of L.A. poetic voices suit a popularizing narrative. He’s not much more sympathetic to other broad categorizations. While he acknowledges the utility of stylistic categories (i.e., language, confessional, and stand up poetries), he recalls with quiet pride the work he and Hickman devoted in order to create spaces for interaction, experimentation, and cross-pollination. Those zones of encounter were much more central than manifesto-writing, either contemporary or retrospective.

Though an anatomist of network effects, Mohr never forgets that literary vitality required strong and idiosyncratic writers. In deft biographical sketches, he brings to life the work of Stuart Perkoff, Leland Hickman, Bruce Boyd, Charles Bukowski, Wanda Coleman, Don Gordon, Thomas McGrath, William Pillin, Ann Stanford, John Thomas, Paul Vangelisti, and Douglas Messerli. Briefer vignettes illuminate the careers of nearly two dozen others.

The most serious shortcoming of Hold Outsis its politics. The period Mohr discusses, 1948 to 1992, fits neatly into the Cold War. Resistance – against McCarthyism, against Vietnam, and against Ronald Reagan’s Central American interventions – did shape the arts in L.A., as Mohr claims. Still, for me, the periodization seems forced. While the Cold War mattered nationally, L.A.’s own history mattered locally and, in my experience, mattered more.

Here, I think, Mohr’s emphasis on the West Side, while essential for understanding the contribution of small presses to L.A.’s literary scene, distorts the relationship between politics and the arts. The most explosive events in L.A.’s last seventy years did not take place in Berlin or Saigon. Consider the period 1965-1970, which witnessed the Watts riots, the East L.A. school blowouts, the rise and fall of the Black Panthers and the Brown Berets. The Black Arts Movement and the Chicano Arts Movement which emerged from these events influenced poetics throughout the region. And, while 1992 may mark the end of the Cold War, that event pales in importance to the Rodney King beating, which continues to reverberate in the work of local poets and other artists.

Mohr’s Cold War frame also ends up excluding poets whose temperament was more conservative: I’m thinking here of Dana Gioia and Christopher Buckley, though there were many others. Considered through the lens of L.A.’s lived history, a different periodization – and a different political frame – might be in order.

Mohr does not imagine his book to be the last word on the subject – to the contrary, he hopes it will impel others to add to the story. Hold Outs, he writes, “is intended only to prepare potential resources for the critic… for only a series of volumes will be capable” of capturing the complexity and diversity of the region’s poetic work.

In the end, Hold Outs achieves more than it promises. Mohr reestablishes lost links between the present and the past, illuminates how we got where we are, and introduces many of us to voices which might otherwise have been lost. L.A. poetics, like the hypercity itself, are sprawling and protean. But the story is fragmented and half-forgotten only if goes untold. If L.A.’s poetic legacy can be fully recovered, perhaps the Renaissance of the title is ahead of us, not behind.

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