Wednesday, August 24, 2016

How Poets Can Change a City’s Culture? by Julia Stein

A Review of A Higher Form of Politics:  The Rise of a Poetry Scene, Los Angeles, 1950-1990. Sophie Rachmuhl. Otis Books Seismicity Editions, 2015.  249 pp. $12.95 (included is CD of Innerscapes Ten Portraits of Los Angeles poets A Film by Sophie Rachmuhl).
 Rachmuhl in her book constantly discusses what is LA poetry?  To answer that question, she combines Los Angeles historian Mike Davis, literary history, and the French sociologist Bourdieu to examine how poets can change a city’s culture through “a higher form of politics.” She uses Mike Davis’s argument in City of Quartz that three times intellectuals changed Los Angeles’s culture:  (1.)  the “Boosters,” intellectuals at the turn of the 20thcentury working for developers to sell the city to tourists; 2.) the  1930s “debunkers” such as historian Carey McWilliams who criticized the Boosters’ mythology of fun in the sun; and  3.) the “Communards,” the  1950s small groups of avant-garde artists such as Ornette Coleman’s free jazz group.  Rachmuhl labels three groups of L.A. poets communards:  Black Arts poets in the 1960s; Chicano poets in the 1980s; and Venice poets of the 1950s.
In describing Black Arts poets, the author fortunately describes the larger context of the1965 Watts Rebellion against an intensely segregated city and then the Watts Writers Workshop. One wishes she’d add a bit more about Southcentral’s tradition of great jazz musicians—Eric Dolphy, Charlie Mingus, Buddy Collette, Frank Morgan etc. Rachmuhl writes excellent portraits of three leading Black Arts poets:  Kamau Daaood, master poet whose work celebrates LA’s wonderful black jazz artists or often is a poetry/jazz collaboration; Father Amde of the Watts Prophets, whose record Rapping Black in a White World was a forerunner of rap; and Wanda Coleman, whose autobiographical poems about growing up in Watts or being a black single mother/worker/poet have searing honesty. Rachmuhl uses Bourdieu's insights that the Black Arts poets grew an audience and a  network of poetry organizers through their many performances across town--also gaining financial support and legitimacy. After Quincy Troup in 1968 edited the anthology Watts Poets: A Book of New Poetry and Essay in bookstores, they had developed a distribution network and recognition as the voice of black Los Angeles by the late 1970s.

Rachmuhl also has a wonderful section on the 1980s Chicano/poets in L.A who produced two literary magazines and an anthology that developed an Chicano audience. She has a fine analysis of Victor Valle’s brilliant poem “Cuidad of Los Angeles” which rewrites the city’s history from the viewpoint of a Chicano. Her excellent portrait of Manual (Manazar) Gamboa describes how as head of Beyond Baroque, he brilliantly edited Los Angeles first multi-racial magazine Obras, but was soon fired. Rachmuhl describes his terrific autobiographical poetry and his pioneering writing workshops in the prisons that  were continued decades later. The book also ably discusses Marisela Norte’s marvelous poetry as well as her participation in the unique urban avant-garde Chicano scene in East LA including poets and visual artists. 

Rachmuhl’s unfortunately chooses the 1950s Venice Beat as her third group of communards. She  fails to recognize Venice beats were influential as rebel symbols after Larry Lipton's book Holy Barbarians gave them 10 minutes of fame. Of the Venice beats, only Stuart Perkoff published a book during the 1950s.  Rachmuhl ignores the far more important 1950s poets who were in the Tom McGrath group.  Both McGrath and Don Gordon had gotten fired in the 1950s anti-Communist witch hunt, but McGrath and his poet friends went on to form a poetry group of communards.

While Venice Beats scarcely published during the 1950s, the poets' group centered around Tom McGrath started California Quarterly and encouraged young poets to start Coastlines—the two most important 1950s magazines publishing poetry. These poets also published many books. Edwin Rolfe's poetry on the Spanish Civil War made him the major U.S. poet to write about the Spanish Civil War, and he wrote hard-hitting anti-McCarthy poems. After McGrath put out four books in the 1940s, he wrote in L.A. much of his wonderful epic Letter to an Imaginary Friend using a Whitman-like voice to describe how Americans survived hard times with grace. A young rebel Jewish working woman, Naomi Replansky made a splash with her first book of poetry of a 1950s free woman in Ring Song (1952) with Scribners. Don Gordon, the only one to grow up in LA, wrote movingly about World War II carnage in his 1940s book and in his book Displaced Persons (1958)  has themes apparent in his titles:  “Nobody Hears You,” “The Investigation,” “The Silent,” “The Dissenter,” “The Deportee,” “In the Gaunt Hour.”  

For the 1980s Rachmul’s book unfortunately omits to follow the multi-racial communards joining together to create a network across L.A. and Orange County.  Manazar’s firing from Beyond Baroque, which had held the key reading series in Venice in the 1970s,  spurred the Old Venice Jail group (Lynne Bronstein, Israel Halpern, Lisa Braudy, and Jennifer Machiarella) to start a rival multi-racial literary series. Other series started:  Manazar’s Galeria Ocaso in Silverlake, Coleman/Straus’s regular poetry show and my 6-hour  multi-racial poetry/music show on KPFK radio, and the Barragans' East LA’s Café Cultural. I got multi-racial poetry published as an editor of Orange County's Electrum magazine. Then I was editor to John Crawford's West End Press helping him create L.A.'s first multi-racial press that published Michelle Clinton, Sesshu Foster,  and Naomi Quinonez. West End Press’s anthology Invocation LA:  Urban Multi-Cultural Poets (1989) grew out of this decade’s work. By the end of the 1980s the communard groups had worked together to put out multi-racial reading series and publishing across Los Angeles and Orange Counties.

Rachmuhl also omits important Asian, Native American, and women poets who were integral to L.A.’s 1980s poetry and who got academic recognition or won national prizes or recognition. Japanese-American Garrett Hongo grew up in Los Angeles, publishing three books of poetry of stunning poetry: The Buddha Bandits down Highway 99 (1978), Yellow Light (1980), and The River of Heaven (1988), which was a Lamont Poetry Selection.  Native American William Oandasan, a Yuki Indian from Round Valley in Northern California, published seven poetry books guiding us into Indian country. He edited the magazine A, a pioneering poetry magazine of Native poets, worked as an editor at the Native American Studies Center at UCLA, and organized at UCLA a conference of Native American poets in 1984 Nationally multi-racial poets in the Before Columbus Book Foundation had annual poetry awards, giving awards to William Oandasan’s Round Valley Songs and Invocation LA:  Urban Multi-Cultural Poets. 

In the books’ section on L.A. women poets Rachmuhl omits three women who did wonderful work.  Ann Stanford, a California State Northridge professor, published the path breaking Women Poets in English (1973), an anthology of 1000 years of poetry as well as another book on Anne Bradstreet, first poet of the American colonies. Stanford was also a fine poet publishing eight poetry collections of poetry as well as a teacher of many young poets. Another omitted poet/professor Mitsuye Yamada focused her poetry on her wartime internment in two brilliant books of poetry:  Camp Notes and Other Poems (1976) and Desert Run: Poems and stories (1989). The third omitted poet Sharon Doubiago, born and educated in L.A., wrote her epic poem on love in the time of genocide Hard Country (1982). In this work Dubiago wrote about her Southern California childhood and adolescence.  She included for the first time in poetry the area’s history including Native history and basing her poem on Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, the first novel written about Southern California. This multi-cultural and women poets' network lay the groundwork for later L.A multi-racial literature which has kept on growing decade after decade to the present day:  the first two Los Angeles Poet Laureats were feminist Eloise Klein Healy and then Luis Rodriguez.
Despite these omissions, Rachmuhl’s book is extremely valuable for showing how a French sociologist Bourdieu and Los Angeles historian Mike Davis can help us understand how poetry is “a higher form of politics.” Future literary historians in focusing on more of L.A.neglected poets will certainly build on Rachmul’s work.

Julia Stein published Under the Ladder to Heaven (1984), her first of five poetry books. She did the only interview with poet Tom McGrath on his career in 1950s Los Angeles (On the Bus, 1992).

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