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.
by Pam Ward
OF THE DEAL"
by Sherman Pearl
by Mary Armstrong
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
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
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
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
What is a poem? “Well, a poet-teacher might
answer if given a truth serum,
“it’s whatever makes
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.
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.
Even better perhaps, was the superb “Nobody Dies,” as rousing a poem about the
failure to rouse the dead as one can imagine reading…
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
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
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.)
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
course, title “Exhaust”, carries a dual meaning.
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.
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.
many in the Los Angeles literary monde don’t know the work of last poet
showcased here, let me open with a modest story.
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.
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.
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?”
she is smooth,” said Robert Dana.
is a publishable poem!” said Chuck Hanzlicek (meaning, by his terms, publishable
in one of those magazines not easy to break into.)
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
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.
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.
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
Ready for Their Close-Up Archive