Ready For Their Close-Up: Three Poems

Curated by Suzanne Lummis


In the American Heritage dictionary close-up is defined as:  1.  A photograph or a film or television shot in which the subject is tightly framed and shown at a relatively large scale. 2.  An intimate view or description.   

"EXHAUST"

by Pam Ward

 

"ART OF THE DEAL"

by Sherman Pearl

 

"FREEWAY SHOOTING"

by Mary Armstrong

 


HAUTE ENNUI VS. GRAND PASSION: 

Another look the controversial Los Angeles Weekly cover story, “Perhaps these are Not Poetic Times at All” (reprinted in Misread City: The New Literary Los Angeles, Red Hen Press, 2003) 

 

It was one of those stunning you’ll-always-remember-exactly-where-you-were-when-it-happened moments.  It came upon me a ways into the 1999 L.A. Weekly article assessing poetry in general and Los Angeles poetry in particular.  I’d been reading along, ticking off to myself the individual poets, and whole poet clans, who were going to be sorely aggrieved by the journalist’s comments and asides that – to the lay reader – might seem innocuous.  Then I came upon a certain foolhardy passage and thought ‘Oh my God…’ Well, I can’t reproduce word-for-word my exact thoughts of four years ago, but they may have gone something like this:  ‘…Wow, Hannibal and Napoleon couldn’t unify Europe. T. E. Lawrence and other historical forces couldn’t unite the Middle East, but one Brendan Bernhard has – for a while at least – drawn the wildly various sectors of the Los Angeles poetry monde into some state of consensus.  He’s pissed off everyone.’ 

 

Quite a feat.  It’s nearly as hard to enflame everyone at once as it is to please everyone.  (And we all know how hard that is.)

 

The subsequent fall-out proved I must know my field.  I must know my L.A. poets.  In response to “Perhaps These are Not Poetic Times at All” The Weekly received a bombardment of angry letters, the second highest number the paper had ever inspired.  In a fascinating juxtaposition, the greatest number of irate letters had come in a year or so before when The Weekly’s film reviewer debunked The Titanic

 

What shall we make of this?  The stories that aroused the most emotion involved, on one hand, an affront to the highest grossing movie in the history of the world’s most popular art form and, on the other, a slighting of the relatively marginal and modest art of poetry (in the very marginal – by literary world standards – enclave of Los Angeles). 

 

If someone had thought to pursue that bit of strangeness she, he, would have had (to hell with this pronoun anguish!) himself a story.  And if some inquiring and inquisitive mind had plunged boldly back into the Los Angeles poetry monde to discover who was angry and why – the different and sometimes conflicting ways in which various groups of poets had been provoked – that would have constituted a story.  Either would have made for more interesting reading than this particular excursion by B. Bernhard, who throughout his article seems to hail poetry with one hand and backstab it with the other, repeatedly dismissing or jeering at nearly all poems and poetries outside of the formal tradition. 

 

It’s not that the Bernhard piece calls upon all poets to return to meter and rhyme. This would not have troubled me much, and I think others, too, would have simply slipped it into the Well, That’s His Opinion file.  No, though Bernhard indicates he strongly favors form over free verse he seems somehow unable to muster the stamina or passion to whole-heartedly praise or pointedly challenge any part of contemporary poetry.  Instead the entire article seems infected by a sense of general dissatisfaction and abiding ennui, which expresses itself in sniping insults and judgments – none of them supported by reasoned argument or examples.  It’s as if the journalist just sat up one day and noticed, ‘I am bored.  Why am I bored?  I know – it must be poetry that’s boring me.’

 

In April (poetry month), a group called “Poets Anonymous” launched

a billboard campaign throughout the city…Most of the stuff was pretty lame, barely preferable to the sales pitches that surrounded it…

 

Having made short work of the billboards he then acknowledges, rather grudgingly, that a Nikki Giovanni quote from one inspired the title for the present article.

 

He doesn’t mention any other poets whose work appeared, so someone from outside the city might suppose billboards covered with doggerel verse had sprung up around L.A.   They might not realize the “lame stuff” came from Mark Strand, W. S. Merwin, Lucille Clifton, T. S. Eliot…

 

I remember a particularly strange and striking one, from Lawrence Raab:

 

                        It’s dark on purpose,

                       so just listen.

 

I cite this small passing moment in the article to alert readers to the way in which its author makes blanket judgments, then offers no support for his opinion.  It’s so because he says it’s so. 

Brendan Bernhard on workshops: 

What is a poem?  “Well, a poet-teacher might answer if given a truth serum,

           

“it’s whatever makes you, the customer, feel good”. 

If presented with that cockamamie charge any poet-teacher worth her salt would respond – and she would not need to be prompted by a truth serum – “Here’s somebody who’s never been through a real poetry workshop and doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about” (or perhaps she’d use other words, but that’s what she’d mean).   

The article may leave some with the impression that the only serious study of poetry takes place in classes that focus exclusively on metered and rhymed poetry, whereas other workshops wallow in various forms of self-indulgence, therapy and “letting off steam”.   

I wish he’d interviewed my students, asked them whether my classes concentrated only on therapy and talking about “how the poem made them feel”.  After they stopped laughing… 

After they stopped laughing those who’d passed through the beginning level and even a third of the way through my intermediate class would be able to instruct the journalist on elements of poetry he doesn’t understand – about creation of the image, clarity and compression, pacing, voice, impact, on how to fasten the reader’s attention to the page, on endings, on the end that echoes, turning and shifting, in the reader’s memory.  On how to recognize it when – by crazy good luck – you produce such an end.   

 

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“Parking Lot” struck me as a topnotch bit of contemporary urban poetry encased  that mustiest of forms: a sonnet.  It was no where to be found, however, in what was effectively the city’s telephone directory for poets:  Grand Passion: The Poetry of Los Angeles and Beyond, an anthology with more than its share of mediocre doodling. 

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Even better perhaps, was the superb “Nobody Dies,” as rousing a poem about the failure to rouse the dead as one can imagine reading…

These seemingly unrelated quotes are in fact connected by their reference, or – in the case of the second – conspicuous lack of reference, to the anthology of 76 poets Charles Webb and I edited in 1995.  I had given Brendan Bernhard a copy of the by then out-of-print book and he used it as a resource for his article.  The fact that he chides us over an omission from Grand Passion but does not acknowledge (in print at least – he did concede as much to me privately) that it was in this collection he discovered Eric Priestley and the poem he praises, is not as problematic as other parts of his statement. 

 

To call this judiciously assembled but by no means comprehensive anthology “a telephone directory of the city’s poets” constitutes a huge political blunder, a de facto error and a shocking deficit of artistic judgment. (But other than that, as the saying goes…  It’s peachy keen.)

 

And as for his charge of “mediocre doodling,” an insult to us editors and to some unnamed, unspecified number of poets in the collection, well… On the occasion of the reprinting of the article (in a collection I otherwise support) I guess I’m obliged, some four years after the debut of the attack, to bestir myself to respond. 

 

By the time I spearheaded the Grand Passion project Charles and I together had read every kind of poetry anthology imaginable – scores of them, regional, national, thematic, classified by race, gender, ethnicity, anthologies defining the canon, the alternative canons, experimental and post-modern poets, new poets, overlooked poets, over-rated poets (well, in my opinion), spoken word and performance poets…

 

I was quite clear on what I wanted for this book: neither starchy, solemn writings that seemed to be auditioning for acceptance by some drab review, nor gangly, talky things aimed for high school degree holders 24 and under.  I wanted smart, edgy, mischievous and tender poems, poems that sparked with details and that caught something of both the vibrancy and danger of the city.  I imagined a book one could read a hundred years from now and glean something of L.A. at the turn of the millennium.  I wanted it to be that specific.

 

I believe I’ve just given not only a fuller but truer description of Grand Passion than is conveyed by Brendan Bernhard's cursory dismissal.  However, if he has some other livelier, richer, deeper vision for a Los Angeles based poetry anthology then let him go forth and have at it.  Let him give off tossing about in ill-humored malaise. Let him do something. 

 

THREE FROM GRAND PASSION

 

Without resorting to poems picked out of a hat I wanted to find a way to make my selection random, so that it would not seem as if I were singling out the three “best,” which would slight other poets in the anthology and also give the sense this was not a representative selection.  I resolved to pick a subject or theme then showcase here whatever three poems contained that element.  Through this method, three delightful poems rose up – all utterly different in style and voice but each one involving cars or travel by car.   

 

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Years back a drama teacher described a scene from a Tom Stoppard play as the saddest, funniest, moment in contemporary theater.  Pam Ward’s poem recalls that phrase to my mind – for here is the saddest-funniest contemporary poem about a “relationship” anyone’s likely to find (without spending a couple days pouring through books). 

 

It’s wonderful how she drags the poem down the page like a long stream of tail pipe emissions and, without the benefit of punctuation, manages to keep the piece comprehensible, cohesive, even as she moves deftly back and forth through time. 

 

Remarkably few relationship poems find their way into serious print because most remain private and uninteresting to the objective reader.  Often, especially in the case of students just starting out, the poems reveal only that somebody somewhere feels angst or anger or elation over some undefined situation – but we have only a general sense of the circumstance.  And the language floats around in the lackluster realm of abstraction.  Here, notice how much real “news” the poet delivers, how much we know – by the end – about this predicament. 

 

And, of course, title “Exhaust”, carries a dual meaning. 

 

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Sherman Pearl wants it on record that the following constitutes one of his lesser achievements, and he’s produced far better poems since.  I’ll wager that many poets would be pleased if their slightest poems contained this degree of control and wit, were this consummately readable.

 

Had it taken another route “Art of the Deal” might have become a self-righteous condemnation of liars and shifty dealmakers, but the poet implicates himself too, pokes fun at himself.  And at the close of the poem, back on the freeway, it seems everyone sails along encapsulated in his own material dream, acquired through trickery and lies.  

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Since many in the Los Angeles literary monde don’t know the work of last poet showcased here, let me open with a modest story.

 

A few years back the Festival brought in from out of town a couple interesting people to lead workshops in the community.  First came the poet professor who’d taught alongside Philip Levine in Fresno, Chuck Hanzlicek, a fine poet in his own right.  Two or three years later we had Robert Dana, who as a young man in the 50s had studied with the indomitable masters Robert Lowell and John Berryman, and whose work has appeared in nearly every major literary magazine. 

 

Several of the poet-participants who’d signed up had garnered well-deserved reputations in Los Angeles and beyond.  The workshop leaders had received ahead of time the poems to be discussed.

 

Both poet-teachers, within moments after I’d met up with them here in L.A., voiced exactly the same question, in the same words: “Who is Mary Armstrong?” 

 

“Boy, she is smooth,” said Robert Dana. 

 

“This is a publishable poem!” said Chuck Hanzlicek (meaning, by his terms, publishable in one of those magazines not easy to break into.)

 

I close with a poem by Mary Armstrong.  I don't need to say much about it. Those with a feeling for contemporary poetry will understand its achievement. And those with none will likely dismiss it as "doodling".

- Suzanne Lummis

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PAM WARD is a third generation native of Los Angeles and graphic designer.  A recipient of a California Arts Council Fellow in Literature, she has had her poetry published in  Scream When you Burn: An Anthology from Caffeine Magazine,  Grand Passion: Anthology of Los Angeles Poets, Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, Catch the Fire: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Poetry, and has self published her own chapbook, entitled Jacked-Up.  She has edited five anthologies including, Picasso's Mistress, What the Body Remembers and  The Supergirls Handbook: A Survival Guide of contemporary Los Angeles African American Female Poets.


SHERMAN PEARL is a co-editor of CQ (California Quarterly), serves on the board of the California State Poetry Society, and was on the founding committee of the Los Angeles Poetry Festival.  His work has appeared in more than 30 literary journals and anthologies (most recently Poets Against the War, edited by Sam Hamill).  He has published three books of poetry and has won several national and international awards., including 1st place in the 2002 competition of the National Writers Union, judged by Philip Levine, and 2nd place in the 2001 Strokstown International Poetry Competition, Ireland's largest poetry prize.


MARY ARMSTRONG is a member of the organizing committee of the Los Angeles Poetry Festival, and a former director of the Valley Contemporary Poetry Series.  Her poetry has appeared in The Spoon River Poetry Review, The Cream City Review, The Ledge, among others, and a series of her poems are forthcoming in The Missouri Review


Ready for Their Close-Up Archive


Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach