Elena Poniatowska, Miguel de Cervantes Prize Winner
Grand Figure of Mexican Literature
Vice President of Interlitq
Trial by Twitter
an article by David Garyan
On January 1st, 2022, my poem, “American Pandemic (The President’s Prayer),” was published in The American Journal of Poetry, Volume 12; it’s a poem, which, at first, seems to take a stand against science—more specifically vaccines, and perhaps, on the surface, something like that, at least if there’s no deeper contemplation, is happening there. For the record, as I wrote in this complementary piece, I believe in the positive power of science and the effectiveness of vaccines, which I received under the supervision of my parents as a child, along with the COVID jab on my own initiative (two shots of Pfizer).
Leaving all that aside, however, and returning to the work, I wrote this poem not to discredit science and vaccines, but to challenge the assumption that science and vaccines can solve all our problems—that somehow those men and women working in white lab coats are saints and miracle workers. I don’t believe they are, at least not in the grandiose, biblical sense. What do I mean? Before addressing this question, I would like to say that, firstly, there should be absolutely no debate about the good these individuals have done—the increased ease and convenience of life is total proof of this. Secondly, I don’t even claim to say that scientists are somehow bad individuals, because they’re not—many of them genuinely care about improving the planet, but even those with good intentions are often blinded by them and can’t see the actual damage the pursuit of their goals is making; this isn’t something peculiar to science or scientists, but rather it’s a general principle which affects everyone, from religious leaders on down to presidents.
So, what’s the purpose and intention of the poem? Essentially, I composed it as a challenge to the supposed saintliness of science. The pandemic has exposed—aside from the frailty of both authoritarian and even democratic nation states (a cliché argument these days)—not only our total obedience to science, but more aptly, our worship of it, to the point of idolatry. This is strange, because science, after all, isn’t omnipotent; it cannot, for example, read your thoughts or open your brain to find a picture of a horse inside it when you’re thinking of one, at least perhaps not yet. And so, we shouldn’t give it that kind of treatment, until it actually demonstrates these “godly” powers, which might be within the realm of possibilities, but perhaps also not.
The people wearing white coats, hence—the ones who’ve given us vaccines, cures, and medication—are often the same people who’ve given us the pandemics, diseases, and problems in the first place. Thus, referring to COVID vaccines as miracles is like saying nuclear decontamination experts are saints because they’ve developed tools to rid Chernobyl of all its radiation, or, more humorously, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Science itself develops the reactors and bombs, and then fashions the “miracles” to protect us from the very harm that arises from them.
It’s because of science, to begin with, that we have many of the illnesses, pandemics, and environmental destruction that the discipline itself is now trying to rid us of. Except for the biblical flood, which was a deliberate attempt to teach humanity a “lesson,” the unwanted consequences of scientific progress are exactly that—unwanted; indeed, I can’t think of any other time when God had to send his “miracles” to cure his people from the ills he himself created, which, as I try to count them, seem to be rare, and probably non-existent, at least in the Garden of Eden.
The unquestioned belief and faith in the “goodness” of science has become, somehow, more dogmatic than Christian fundamentalism; in this respect, perhaps, we don’t need more science, but less of it. As Gandhi wrote in Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule, a 1910 book in which he discusses not only India, but also modern civilization and colonialism. This work, like many others which show us the uncomfortable truth of who and what we are, was of course banned by the British—not that different from what’s happening today when people are simply silenced for speaking about things that make the government and masses uncomfortable. So, what does Gandhi say here that’s so relevant to our times? Or, the better question to ask would the following: How does he get banned? Well, by stating the following: “Railways, lawyers and doctors have impoverished the country [India] so much so that, if we do not wake up in time, we shall be ruined.” Let’s ignore lawyers for a second, and focus on doctors, who, according to Gandhi, give us the false illusion of health, because instead of listening to the messages and symptoms of our own bodies, we, instead, take medications to silence those very signs that tell us we’re destroying ourselves, all in the attempt to continue living those destructive lives.
Take, for example, individuals who routinely overeat—in the event of chronic pain, they’re less likely to embark on the difficult road of ceasing their unhealthy habit and more likely to follow the convenient way of taking substances that relieve the very symptoms/bodily signals which are telling them to stop eating in the first place, and when those miracles of science slowly begin losing their effectiveness (something they’re bound to do sooner or later) that person will blame the medication’s quality/growing ineffectiveness instead of his own lifestyle.
And so, doctors, according to Gandhi, aren’t so much curing people these days inasmuch as they’re promoting unhealthy lifestyles, and they do this by making us believe that health is no longer about your own ability to protect the body that’s yours, but rather it’s the job of science to do that—so stay out. Science has conveniently labeled those bodily signals which are telling us to change our own lifestyle and conveniently labeled them “symptoms,” in order to take away our own agency and hand it over to science so it can “cure” it.
And how about mental health? Feeling depressed? Like the stomach pain caused by overeating, don’t figure out why you have no energy or motivation. Don’t listen to your own body because you neither know it nor can change it yourself. You’re not a scientist and you’ll undergo Trial by Twitter should you dare step out of line. Indeed, your depression is probably caused by the fact that you’ve ingested too much TV or are leading a generally unproductive life, but don’t you dare make that assumption—these things are neither worth thinking about nor even relevant. Take an anti-depressants and continue your routine, because, you, as a Western individual, one with complete faith in science, can do nothing wrong to yourself, and if you do something wrong to yourself—like overeating which leads to stomach pain or watching too much TV which leads to depression—it’s not your job to fix or even worry about that; it’s the job of science to do that. Is this the altar of saintly science we blindly kneel before?
Already, articles, such as this one in Forbes are beginning to report that psychologists may have been too eager in designating some mental disorders as real disorders, when in fact, something like “ADHD is not a disorder …. Rather it is an evolutionary mismatch to the modern learning environment we have constructed.” Indeed, it’s not depression itself that’s the problem, but the modern world, with all its technology and science, that’s causing the depression to begin with—triggering things in the mind that would never have come to the surface in an otherwise “healthy” environment, not contaminated by the miracles of science. Disorders, however, and more surreptitiously symptoms, pay well, and so why not designate? Why not diagnose? Because to cure, you must diagnose, but who benefits from the cure in this case—the patient or corporations? Why do you need to “cure” something that could’ve been avoided in the first place?
Let’s return to modernity. Gandhi spoke about railroads. And so, was it not this technology which first connected the world? And, by God, how it truly did connect everyone—pandemics and diseases included, and these, of course, never had to pay for a ticket. During Gandhi’s day, railroads were all the rage—today it’s automobiles and planes, spreading all kinds of germs with greater convenience and ease, when, hundreds of years ago, these friendly viruses rarely left the community. Once again: Is this the saintliness of science that we must worship?
Perhaps it’s still not apparent to most that we’re losing our humanity. The sentiment may seem grand, but what good will it do us to trust blindly in science when that very same blindness more than satisfies the definition of dogma in any religion? Is it not apparent that we’re falling into the same trap of exclusion, intolerance, and narrow-mindedness when we judge people who choose to follow a different creed, except that now the persecution is packaged in a different form of heresy—the refusal to bow down to the altars of medicine, engineering, physics, and chemistry—things which have given us cures, bridges, light, but also atomic bombs, poisons, and Dr. Mengele, who and which, as I’ve written, have yet to demonstrate divinity, and probably never will.
It may be cliché, but there’s a price to pay for everything, and science has largely refused to acknowledge any of its own faults, which is why it’s strange, these days, for the discipline to demand that people worship its teachings like a religion—complete faith in the so-called chemical scriptures. Not that nature can’t wreak its own havoc or create its own poisons, but at least when the forest regrows after a lightning fire, or rivers return to their banks after downpours, nature doesn’t have the arrogance to designate precisely those forces which help it heal from the wounds its own power has inflicted as miracles.
It’s in this respect that I refuse to call vaccines, the people who develop and administer them, and science in general as miracles, because they’re not—even if they do contribute much good to our society. A blind belief, along with a total, unquestioned reliance on these things, much less the elevation of these studies to a holy plateau, is utterly unwarranted, and this remains the message of the poem.
And lastly, let’s assume the government does coerce individuals into doing something which is ultimately good for them, this coercion, nevertheless, can’t be called freedom, because while today that “benevolence” may align with the government’s own goals, tomorrow those goals may diverge, and when scientists begin injecting people to satisfy an entirely different, but necessary agenda (sterilizing people, for example, to control population because the planet is on the verge of collapse) will we blindly follow those measures as well—for the “good” of the planet? That too remains the message of the poem.
The authentic artist has always been and will always be an ardent critic of the blind stupidity espoused by the masses. And, furthermore, it’s the true visionaries who see, and perhaps have already seen, what lies two steps ahead—precisely those dangers which seem absolutely harmless today but will become a force to be reckoned with years down the line. Indeed, it’s the real poets who’ve always been enemies of the government; if they’re not dissidents, they’re existence is worthless. Those, who, today, prop up the governments’ initiatives are nothing more than the American variety of the Soviet Writers Union, which bestowed elite status and material benefits in exchange for cheap literature that promoted the “noble” agendas of the state. Our own apparatchik artists today—in contrast to the hack poets like Mayakovsky and hack novelists like Ostrovski who glorified the construction of a communist paradise—are styling themselves like ones who’ve just gotten out of bed, and they’re nevertheless espousing a similarly unrealistic Eden where no one is ever offended, where everyone is always safe, where everything is forever perfect, because 2+2=5, and all of this will somehow be brought by an incarnation of Lenin, except he’ll be a better communist this time.
For now, everything is okay—get vaccinated and carry a card that prevents those who don’t have it from entering movie theaters and Christmas markets. Anyways, today it’s all for our own good and what’s the harm if it also coincides with the government’s agenda? None whatsoever. When tomorrow, however, the planet’s very existence is really threatened (it will surely come to that point one day) and something drastic must be done to fix the situation, it will no longer matter to the government what people are injected with—only that the problem is solved.
About David Garyan
David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.
Robert Frost (1874-1963)
Artist: Willis Barnstone
At Wesleyan we lunch. Time slows on us in infinite New England grass.
Frost warns, “Don’t stay too long in Europe. You might be shipped back as a corps
under a plate of Kremlin glass.”
About Willis Barnstone
Poet, religious scholar, and translator Willis Barnstone was born in Lewiston, Maine, and earned a BA from Bowdoin College, an MA from Columbia University, and a PhD from Yale University. An intrepid traveler, he taught in Greece at the end of that country’s civil war and in Argentina during the “Dirty War,” and was in China during the Cultural Revolution. He later returned to China as a Fulbright Professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.
The author of nearly 50 books, Barnstone has published more than a dozen volumes of poetry, including From This White Island (1959), China Poems (1977), The Secret Reader: 501 Sonnets (1996), Algebra of Night: New & Selected Poems 1948–1998, and Life Watch (2003).
He has also published numerous translations from Chinese, Spanish, French, Latin, ancient and modern Greek, and biblical Hebrew, including a complete translation of the New Testament (which he translates as the New Covenant), as well as memoirs, religious studies, children’s literature, and songs.
Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:
interviewed by David Garyan
DG: I was taking a look the other day at your website that has a display of the covers of all the books you published back when you were the editor of Momentum Press in the 1970s and 1980s. While you’ve not only had your own poems published in numerous anthologies and had your writing translated into several languages, you’ve become known as a representative figure of the Southern California poetry scene primarily because of your activity as an editor, publisher, scholar, and critic. Along with a discussion of how you’ve promoted poetry over the years, what is it that motivates some poets to not only have aspirations for their own work, but to help and promote others as well?
WM: I doubt that my experience could serve as a basis for analyzing what motivates some poets to promote others. “Surf’s up,” said the culture back then, and what can I say except that I found the self-empowerment of publishing the work of other poets to be irresistible? And by “surf’s up,” I don’t mean just literary culture. If I got pulled aside from my own writing and instead dedicated myself to the small press movement on the West Coast in the 1970s, it was in large part because the means of production had become more accessible. Publishing a book or a magazine was no longer some exotic, mysterious process, thanks in my case to a typesetting machine installed at Beyond Baroque courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts.
As for personal motives, well, when I was a very young poet in Los Angeles, what were the options? Not only were there hardly any MFA programs, but the few that existed were not sympathetic to my poetics. Fortunately, I found myself in a milieu that included Beyond Baroque (when it was on what is now Abbott Kinney Blvd.), Papa Bach Bookstore, Chatterton’s Bookstore, and the Woman’s Building.
That said, it’s crucially important to remember that I was hardly alone. I could only have achieved what I did because I was part of a much larger literary insurgency on the West Coast. I’m thinking of exemplary poet-editor-publishers such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, George Hitchcock, Lyn Hejinian, Paul Vangelisti, and Doug Messerli. That quintet is responsible for over a thousand books and issues of magazines that have profoundly shaped what will eventually be regarded as the West Coast canon of postmodern poetry. Add John Martin’s Black Sparrow Press to the mix and you have a serious line-up of cultural agitators. Momentum Press hardly compares with their accomplishments. I suppose for the poets I published, my project didn’t seem minor at the time, but I don’t think any honest assessment would regard it in any other way. Even as a minor effort, however, it was part of a couple dozen other equivalent projects that provided a literary substrate above the aquifer of imaginative artistic activity on the West Coast in the 1970s and ’80s.
In general, whether major or minor, an independent literary publisher’s most meaningful work, beyond surviving long enough economically to make an imprint, is to cluster writers together so that the ensemble of their books becomes a conversation within a reading community. If the publishers are also poets, for instance, their writing will inevitably be embedded within those informal and formal conversations. Therefore, work on behalf of other poets can turn out not to be as selfless as it might appear to be at first glance.
Bill Mohr reads his poem “Why the Heart Never Develops Cancer.”
DG: Can you speak a little about how you happened to start Momentum Press? I may be wrong, but it seems that something was lacking in the literary establishment and you were trying to fill that void. As Beverly Clearly said: “If you don’t see the book you want on the shelves, write it.” With respect to publishing, what was the missing link, and looking back, are you generally satisfied, or is there a poet or writer working today you would’ve wanted to publish in the 70s and 80?
WM: None of us should ever neglect the other option to Cleary’s dictum: “If you don’t see the book you want on library shelves, publish it.” I suppose the missing link—the missing shelf in the bookstore or library—was a set of older poets in Los Angeles who were writing poems as good as one could ever hope to read, and I wanted other people to read them, too. I also suppose it was slightly anomalous for a publisher to be younger than the poets being published, but I saw an opportunity that wasn’t going to last long. There is a part of me, of course, that looks back and wishes that I had just focused on my own writing, but there was a scene at that point that was gaining palpable momentum and the name of the press seemed to fit the situation. One can imagine parallels in pop music, in which people start small record companies because there are musicians and bands that aren’t getting the attention and respect they deserve.
For the most part, I am happy about the backlist of Momentum Press, and wish the books were still in print so that people could easily access them. Kate Braverman’s Milk Run is one of the best first books of poems published in the 1970s, but people shouldn’t have to pay a minimum of forty dollars to get a copy. Kate’s writing in the mid-1970s strikes me now as being a kind of forerunner to Alexis Rhone Fancher’s poems and short prose, and those who admire her writing would benefit from reading Milk Run first.
In retrospect, I am kind of astonished that I managed to publish so many poets at an early stage of their careers. One always regrets missed opportunities, of course. I wish I hadn’t felt so overwhelmed at one point with production work that I wasn’t able to bring out Eloise Klein Healy’s second book. She had won a Beyond Baroque book contest and was naturally anxious to get a second book out. I still remember how Eloise and I met upstairs at Beyond Baroque one afternoon, and I had to tell her that I just had too many projects in motion to take on another one. My recollection is that Jack Grapes had said that Bombshelter Press was going to bring out her book, but it had kept getting delayed again and again, and Eloise had finally lost patience. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take up the slack. Aleida Rodriguez’s rara avis press ended up publishing A Packet Beating Like a Heart, and Eloise eventually was appointed the first poet laureate of Los Angeles, so it’s not as if my inability to assist Eloise completely derailed her development. Nevertheless, despite the fact that Eloise appears in both of the Los Angeles poetry anthologies, I rue that missed opportunity. Her second book is the most egregious missing part of Momentum’s backlit conversation. I suppose it would also have been ideal to have published Wanda Coleman’s first book, but if one looks at the letters between Wanda and John Martin at UCLA Special Collections, it’s obvious that Wanda had her sights set on Black Sparrow long before Momentum Press came along.
I also regret not being able to publish Doug Blazek’s “Selected Poems.” The same with Julia Stein. And is there someone else? Well, it may sound odd, but in retrospect I wish I’d published myself. On a technical level, I did, but the book is almost non-existent. If you look at the list of poets I mentioned at the start of the interview, all of them put out their own books, too, so there’s no reason I should not have done as handsome a job with a significant print run, except that I just didn’t have enough self-acceptance to give myself a place at the table, too.
Certainly, there are poets who have emerged in recent years that I would have wanted to publish in the 1970s, if they had been writing then, and I have used whatever cultural capital I have to get attention for their work. Carol Ellis, who lives in Portland now, for instance, had her first major collection of poems published by Beyond Baroque just before the pandemic started. Beth Ruscio is a very fine actress whose poetry I have encouraged over the years, and I’m delighted to see that her work is getting considerable attention. And, of course, there were poets I recorded on “Put Your Ears On,” my public access poetry program at Century Cable in the early 1990s, who implicitly were an extension of Momentum Press’s backlist: Scott Wannberg, Bob Flanagan, Ellen Sander, and Lynn McGee, for instance.
Finally, in the 70s and 80s, I wish I could have published Tom Lux and Mark Salerno. I vividly remember when Lux made his first reading tour of Los Angeles in the early 1990s. He read at the Chateau Marmont, then Loyola Marymount and then CSU Long Beach, and it was obvious that he fit right into this milieu. Salerno deserves to be far better known, but he is one of the truly elusive maverick poets in this country.
DG: Names such as Harry Northup, James Krusoe, Eloise Klein Healy, Joseph Hansen, Peter Levitt, Holly Prado, and many others have appeared in the pages of your press in one manner or another; in this respect, the titles have run the gamut from individual collections, to anthologies, chapbooks, and beyond. What are some particular projects you have the fondest memories of, and were they also the most successful, or did the reception of some titles take you by surprise?
WM: Publishing is hard work, so it feels odd to use the phrase fond memories. Perhaps I get the greatest retrospective pleasure out of how my publishing and editorial efforts changed other people’s lives. For example, I expected Holly Prado’s book of “autobiographical fiction” Feasts to do well in terms of sales, but I never anticipated how it would change the author’s life in such an intimate fashion. Harry Northup tells the story of how he read Holly Prado’s Feasts and decided that he wanted to meet the author. They were together for over 40 years. I still remember a love poem that Holly read at George Sand Bookstore shortly after they met: “You’re the whole damn rodeo.” I think that was the final line of one section. It certainly had that vibe. Holly and Harry went on to launch a poet’s cooperative, Cahuenga Press, which published Cecilia Woloch’s first book as well as a posthumous collection of Ann Stanford’s poems, in addition to their own books.
Lee Hickman’s Great Slave Lake Suite was one of my major successes on the level of critical response. And, of course, my efforts instigated a major change in his life. Leland Hickman told me that he began editing because of my example. He saw how magazines could be an intervention that was every bit as powerful as a poem. I do wish he had kept writing and not poured so much of his energy into editing, but he was not one to make a half-hearted effort. In terms of surprises, though, I never expected Lee’s book to be nominated by the L.A. Times as one of the five best books of poems published in the United States in 1980. It’s hard to top that honor as a publisher, given that I had so little in the way of resources. My penury was not unnoticed by one of the poets I published. I think Alicia Ostriker was shocked a bit to see how I lived. Her book might be my proudest moment. It’s still in print. Obviously, not by Momentum Press. First, the reprint rights went to Beacon Press, and then to the University of Pittsburgh Press. How many books of poems published 40 years ago are still in print as separate volumes? The funny part is that I get called a regional publisher, even though I also published Jim Moore, a Minnesota poet who has published several books with Milkweed Editions and had poems in dozens of magazines, and Len Roberts, who went on to win several honors as a poet after I published his first book. And then there’s also James Grabill. I published his first collection of poem, One River, in 1975. He was living in Ohio then, and he subsequently moved to Oregon. I have never met him. If I’m publishing four poets such as Ostriker, Moore, Roberts, and Grabill, who all live in different parts of the country, in what way am I just a regional publisher?
Bill Mohr reads his poem “Substitute Teacher.”
DG: With Momentum Press, you’ve edited two anthologies of Los Angeles poets—the first being The Streets Inside: Ten Los Angeles Poets (1979), and the second Poetry Loves Poetry: An Anthology of Los Angeles Poets (1985). While California and New York collections seem to be more common, full-scale LA anthologies are quite rare (except for Suzanne Lummis’s Wide Awake and the occasional magazine that may devote a section to the city). In this respect, it’s been over twenty-five years since your latest undertaking. It does seem we’re ripe for another one, but I wonder: Would you consider editing such a project a third time, and if so, what new names might find themselves in those pages? And also, if you had to select another person to edit such an endeavor, what editor best comes to mind, and why?
WM: It might be easier to respond to that question through a process of elimination. Who are the people who would do a terrible job? At the top of that list is the editor of Rattle magazine. He tries hard, but so many of the poems he picks end up feeling generic in ways that are even less interesting than the infamous workshop poem. Having said that, I want to make it clear that occasionally the real thing shows up in Rattle, but he’s far too inconsistent to entrust with a definitive anthology.
Tony Barnstone put together a fairly comprehensive ensemble of L.A.-based poets for something called Practix. I haven’t seen a copy of it yet, though. I get a sense of it being a limited-run print on demand edition. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but its publication release got stalled by the pandemic, and I don’t know that it will recover and ever gain a foothold as a notable survey of Los Angeles poets.
It would be very interesting to see what Gail Wronsky and Sarah Maclay would come up with if they were given the task of editing an anthology. Or what if Luis J. Rodriguez were to team up with Lynne Thompson? Obviously, being capable of editing an anthology is not one of the necessary qualifications to be a poet laureate for what Peter Schjeldahl has termed a “transmission city,” but it would be a pleasure to see what Luis and Lynne would come up with. They are examples of poets who have considerable, broad support. There is already a hint of how such a book would turn out in a volume that was published a half-dozen years ago: Cultural Quakes and Shifts. That anthology did have a forerunner back in the late 1980s, a few years after my second anthology came out. Michelle T. Clinton and two other poets edited an anthology called Invocation L.A. Michelle moved to the Bay Area a few years later, and she has largely withdrawn from being a publicly active poet.
As for editing an anthology, I think the secret is to start with poems rather than names. Now theoretically, that Best Poems of the Year anthology is reading for just the best poems, but you can’t convince me that is how it turns out. For every time that someone “unknown” such as Alexis Rhone Fancher gets in that collection, there are at least a dozen poems by a name I recognize and their poems often just sit there and look self-satisfied commodities on the grocery store shelf. I hope you keep that in mind when you start editing the anthology you just proposed. Quite frankly, I think you’re the best person for the job, David. The issues of Interlitq that feature California poets have pretty much established you as the frontrunner editor.
What is most needed is the first truly retrospective Los Angeles anthology: William Pillin and Don Gordon; Eileen Aronson Ireland and John Thomas; Gene Frumkin and Grover Jacoby; Charles Bukowski and Wanda Coleman; K. Curtis Lyle and James Krusoe; Manazar Gamboa and Gil Cuadros; Amy Gerstler and La Loca; Will Alexander and Harold Abramowitz; Laurel Ann Bogen and Charles Harper Webb; Michelle Bitting and liz gonzalez, Brian Kim Stefans and Timothy Steele; Stephen Yenser and Harry Northup; Holly Prado and Suzanne Lummis; Jack Grapes Jack Skelley; etc. etc.
DG: Your newest anthology, Cross-Strokes: Poetry between Los Angeles and San Francisco, was co-edited with Neeli Cherkovski, a household name in the Bay Area. Was this particular project a sort of attempt to eliminate the rivalry between the two cities, and if not, why include just poets from LA and San Francisco, instead of realizing a new California anthology, or perhaps even separate anthologies for each city?
WM: Hey, this is where we come back to the publisher and conversations that their books engender. I made a point in the dissertation version of what became Holdouts: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance that it was absolutely silly to let the provincial rivalries of San Francisco and Los Angeles erase what really mattered: their symbiotic efforts to define a distinct canon of poetry that embroils the entire West Coast. I finished that dissertation in 2004, and Paul Vangelisti was very familiar with that argument. By chance, about ten years ago, Paul was talking to Neeli Cherkovski on a visit to San Francisco. Now one must remember that both Paul and Neeli had been co-editors along with Charles Bukowski of an anthology of Los Angeles poets back in the very early 1970s. When, therefore, according to Neeli, he spontaneously reacted to a discussion comparing poets in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and Neeli realized how many poets had lived in both cities, he suggested to Paul that an anthology gathering all of those poets who had moved back and forth might be an interesting project. The idea found a ready audience in Paul because my dissertation had already well established that hybridity. I was the obvious choice to be a co-editor, and we went from there. The idea wasn’t so much to dampen the contentiousness as to get readers to focus on the common content of poets who have found both cities to be propitious sites for poetry.
DG: It is surprising to find out how much each city is a revolving door for poets on the West Coast.
WM: There certainly isn’t any equivalent on the East Coast. You don’t find large numbers of poets who move from Boston to New York and back to Boston who are members of distinct scenes or movements.
Bill Mohr, poet in the studio
DG: Neeli grew up in Los Angeles, but is one of those California poets who chose to work in San Francisco. You were a teenager in San Diego, I believe, but ended up moving to Los Angeles when you were 20 years old. Let’s talk about Los Angeles, the city in which you’ve worked most of your life. In what way is it easy to be a poet there, and conversely, how is it also very difficult?
WM: As opposed to it being easy or difficult to be a poet in San Francisco or Charleston, South Carolina or Albuquerque, New Mexico? This is a question that has been on the minds of poets, not to mention poet-editor-publishers, in L.A. for well over a half-century, and it’s a topic that would require an entirely separate conversation. I remember when I was briefly part of a seminar on Los Angeles at the Getty Research Institute and the person in charge, Michael Roth, asked me with subtle condescension, “Who wants to be local?” Now I’m not saying that West Coast independent literary publishers had a realistic chance, but many of us really did believe that we could mount a serious challenge to the hegemony of publishers on the east coast who were being acquired by ever larger corporations, which in turn were being folded into the portfolios of even more enormous economic entities. It was not just a literary movement. In retrospect, I guess it would seem to be as much a fantasy as a group of pacifists believing that they defund the Pentagon. At the very least, though, some of us wanted to expose the privileges of cultural capital, if not to redefine the keywords that underpin it. There are still such efforts being made in Los Angeles. Matthew Timmons’s Insert Blanc, for instance.
DG: If the first half of your adult life (1970-1995) ended up with you balancing your own poetry with publishing and promoting other people’s writing, the second half has focuses on writing literary history, and reviews, and critical articles as well as writing your own poetry, not to mention working your way up the ranks at what you’ve referred to in other conversations as “the brain factory.” You came to academia later than most people, having started studying for your M.A. at the age of fifty, and then getting a PhD; in this respect, you actually experienced firsthand the things you’re now teaching: publishing, editing, writing, and so on. In what way, then, was it a blessing to begin your university career in this way, and do you think that many of those who jump straight into university are missing the essential aspects of what makes poetry an art—a way of living in the end, rather than a “career?”
WM: I think in a courtroom your question would be called “leading the witness,” but the judge has ruled that the witness can proceed. I don’t know that it gave me any advantage other than having to wait for the 1970s and 1980s to become distant enough to seem as if they were a distinct ring on the “Great Tree of the Literary Canon.” The academic professionalization of poetry began in earnest in 1980s. As I pointed out in Holdouts, many people forget how few MFA programs existed back in the late 1970s. It was only when the academy realized that the small press movement was a serious challenge to mainstream control of poetry that the counter-attack began, and it’s not entirely coincidental that one sees Reagan elected about this time. Now if I’d been “smart,” I would have cashed in and gotten an MFA in the early 1980s, and gone from there—I didn’t, however, in large part because I really was alienated from American society and I wasn’t interested in a “career.” If my involvement in non-academic scenes was prolonged far beyond what might be expected of a young poet, I would attribute that to the presence of Beyond Baroque. It’s not that I haven’t had a problematic relationship with that organization over the past half-century, but it’s been a constant entanglement that proved to be essential to my development for a half-century. In the early 1980s, for instance, when I could have jumped ship so to speak and gotten academic credentials, it was Beyond Baroque that kept me anchored in L.A. To that extent, the way that the scene at Beyond Baroque caught a second wind with the emergence of what is called “the Cooper gang” was pivotal in keeping me around long enough to become part of the New Alliance catalogue of spoken word. I still treasure my memories of hearing my poems played simultaneously with music tracks chosen by Liza Richardson on the “Man-in-the-Moon” radio show on KCRW.
Bill Mohr reads his poem, “Ball of Tension.”
DG: Your wife, Linda Fry, is a painter. Have either of you ever switched genres? If so, what was the result?
WM: I’ve modeled for Linda, both intentionally and unintentionally. The latter occurred when I started sharing studio space with her about three years ago. We currently share a studio in the Loft, which is over in San Pedro. She recently had a show of large paintings up on the third floor exhibition space, and I threw a birthday party for myself that was also a closing reception. Due to the COVID pandemic, I hadn’t seen many of the poets in the same space for quite a while. I enjoyed painting, but I hardly regard myself as a visual artist. I did have a painting selected for a juried show in Long Beach in which the work was judged anonymously, so I guess it has some degree of merit, but there are a lot of poets who are also visual artists much better than I will ever be, and some of them are friends. Brooks Roddan, for instance, is a fine poet as well as a painter.
Bill Mohr with Linda Fry
DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?
WM: I am working on an essay about William Carlos Williams’s influence on West Coast poetry that a guest editor at the William Carlos Williams Review recently asked me to write. It won’t be the first time I’ve contributed to that journal. One of my favorite essays from back when I was a grad student at UCSD got published in it, and it’s time for a follow-up piece. However, I do need to bear down on assembling a volume of my essays about West Coast poets and getting it published as soon as possible. Trying to do that work, and write poems, and teach and do committee work is more than can be done at the same time, unfortunately, especially at an institution where committee work is unfairly distributed.
I’m also focused on getting my literary archive organized. The editorial archive is already at UCSD, and it’s still up in the air about where the complementary papers will end up. I really need to get this material placed somewhere by the end of 2022. USC offered to house the material, but at this point it looks as if UCSD will end up getting the whole kit and caboodle. I must say that it will be a relief to get four dozen large boxes out of a public storage unit and have it all formally catalogued.
As for my own poems, I’m revising a manuscript of selected shorter poems that I first put together about ten years ago. Although this manuscript will cover the period between 1970 and 2020, perhaps I will have the good fortune and the patience to wait a few more years so that I can include some recent poems in the volume, though that would mean I’d lose the circumnavigation of exactly a half-century. Ideally, I’ll live long enough and stay sufficiently productive to round off another decade. Longevity is like getting one’s work translated. It’s more a matter of luck than anything else. I still remember the thrill of getting an email from Mexico from Jose Luis Rico asking if I would like a book of my poems translated into Spanish. Having Bonobos Editores publish the book of poems (Pruebas Ocultas) and being invited to make three trips to Mexico to read my poems was the greatest honor I have ever received. If something like that happens again in what remains of my life, I would be delighted, but that memory is probably the one I will linger with if I have any consciousness left in my final hours.
About Bill Mohr
Poet, editor, publisher, scholar, and critic, Bill Mohr is widely recognized as one of the leading literary activists in Southern California in the past 40 years. His writing has been featured in over a dozen anthologies, and translated into Spanish, Japanese, Italian, and Croatian. His work as editor/publisher of Momentum Press received four awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, and his honors include being a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles and fellowships at the Huntington Library. His highly praised account of West Coast poetry, Holdouts: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1992, was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2011. In 2018, What Books Press published The Headwaters of Nirvana. He is a professor in the Department of English at California State University, Long Beach.