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).
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 led by novelist Budd Schulberg. One wishes she’d add a bit more about Southcentral’s tradition of great jazz musicians—Eric Dolphy, Charlie Mingus, Buddy Collette, Frank Morgan, Don Cherry, Horace Tapscott, and Billy Higgins. 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 the insights of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to explain what communards such as the Black Arts poets need for a successful intervention: 1.) growth of an audience that gives poets financial support and legitimacy; 2.) “growth of a network of writers, poetry organizers, and bookstore owners;” and 3.) rival distribution and “recognition networks multiplied, vying for cultural legitimacy.”The author traces how the Watts Workshop writers did develop an audience through their many performances in night clubs to auditoriums gaining a wide audience and were thought as the voice of black Los Angeles in the late 1960s. Quincy Troup in 1968 edited the anthology Watts Poets: A Book of New Poetry and Essay which was sold in bookstores.
Rachmuhl also has a wonderful section on the long-neglected Chicano/poets in L.A in the 1980s, tracing their intervention through the production of their two literary magazines and an anthology that developed an East LA 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. In Rachmuhl’s portrait of Manual (Manazar) Gamboa, she describes him as a poet who after getting out of prison took part in the workshop at Beyond Baroque and then became head of Beyond Baroque,brilliantly editing Los Angeles first multi-racial magazine Obras, but was soon fired. Rachmuhl describes his terrific autobiographical poetry including about his time in jail and his pioneering writing workshops to thousands incarcerated in the prisons. L.A. in 2016 still carries out prison writing workshops that Manazar started. The book also ably discusses Marisela Norte’s marvelous poetry bicultural writing as well as her participation in the unique urban avant-garde Chicano scene in East LA including poets and visual artists who expressed both Chicano pride and angry alienation doing performance art, placas, plays, gallery exhibits, art books, and readings.
Rachmuhl’s third group of communards is the Venice Beat poets of the 1950s. Of the Venice beats only Stuart Perkoff published a book during the 1950s. Rachmuhl describes how Larry Lipton wrote a successful prose book about Venice beats called the Holy Barbarians that anointed poet Stuart Perkoff a poetry shaman and inspired a short mass media frenzy giving the Venice Beats an audience for a brief time in their 10 minutes of fame.The author fails to recognize Venice beats in the 1950s were influential as rebel symbols but not as poets. Unfortunately,she ignores the more important poets who were in the Tom McGrath group.
Rachmuhl’s misunderstanding of 1950s poetry are a result of her using the old-fashioned idea of a split in U.S. poetry between formalist conservative modernism dominated by New Critics and the innovators found in Donald Allen’s anthology New American Poetry. Cary Nelson’s brought out his breakthrough Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945 (1989). While the New Critics had attacked and discarded 1930s left poets, Nelson brought them back, with his brilliant criticism about pre-World War I left modernists, Harlem Renaissance poets, and1930s/ 1940s modernist dissidents. Then Nelson’s anthology Modern American Poetry (2000) included for the first all ofU.S. 20th century poetry: left dissident white poets and black poets throughout the century,Chinese immigrant poets, apolitical modernists,1940s Japanese-American haiku written in the concentration camps, and post-1960s multi-racial poets.
In California many 1930s /40s radicals poets—Rexroth, Larry Lipton, and Tom McGrath--later inspired or publicized young writers.While Venice Beats scarcely published during the 1950s, the poets' group centered around Tom McGrath did. Edwin Rolfe had published a book of poetry in 1938, his poetry on the Spanish Civil War made him the major U.S. poet to write about the Spanish Civil War, and he wrote the country’s best anti-McCarthy poems. After McGrath put out four books in the 1940s, and in L.A. he wrote much of his wonderful epic Letter to an Imaginary Friend how Americans survived hard times with grace in his Whitman-like voice.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.”
Given the New Critics and McCathryite attacks, national recognition for these poets in the 1950s was impossible, but Rachmuhl’s idea of communards does fit McGrath starting California Quarterly and encouraging young poets to start Coastlines—the two important magazines publishing 1950s L.A. poetry. Part of these poets’ intervention succeeded in Los Angeles as the magazines bravely created free space for L.A. culture.
In the books’ section on L.A. women poets Rachmuhl omits three women who did wonderful work. A crucial part of 1970s-1980s feminist poetry was academics’ research and publications rediscovering global women’s poetrs. 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 is 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 is Sharon Doubiago, born and educated in L.A., but she has lived since her twenties outside the city. In her epic poem on love in the time of genocide titled Hard Country (1982), 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.
Rachmul’s book unfortunately omits to follow the succeeding history of multi-racial communards joining together in an intervention in the literary culture in the 1980s. Manazar’s firing from Beyond Baroque in 1980 spurred multi-ethnic poets to network reading spaces across the city from the Old Venice Jail to Manazar’s Galeria Ocaso in Silverlake, to Coleman/Straus’s show on KPFK radio, and to East LA’s Café Cultural and many others. I joined Electrum magazine, getting the magazine as much as multi-cultural poetry to carry on Manazar’s work of showcasing all of Southern California poetry, while John Crawford, who grew up in Pasadena and who had a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University, had his West End Press publish a multi-racial group of California poets—Sharon Doubiago, William Oandasan, Nelly Wong, Wendy Rose, Michelle Clinton, Sesshu Foster, Naomi Quinonez, Russell Leong, and my own book. Only Wong and Rose were not from Los Angeles. West End Press’s anthology Invocation LA: Urban Multi-Cultural Poets (1989) grew out of this decade’s work. Unfortunately, Crawford moved to New Mexico for a college teaching job and continued his press there.
Rachmuhl also omits important Asian and Native American poets who were integral to L.A.’s 1980s poetry.Garrett Hongo grew up in Los Angeles, publishing three books of poetry: The Buddha Bandits down Highway 99 (1978), Yellow Light (1980), and The River of Heaven (1988), which was a Lamont Poetry Selection. In these books he writes stunning autiobiographical poems about his Asian Los Angeles. Native American William Oandasan, a Yuki Indian from Round Valley in Northern California, published seven poetry books with poetry guiding us into Indian country. He edited the magazine A, a pioneering poetry magazine of Native poets. During the mid-1980s he worked as an editor at the Native American Studies Center at UCLA and organized at UCLA a conference of Native American poets. Nationally multi-racial poets had organized into the Before Columbus Book Foundation which in the 1980s had annual poetry awards, giving awards to William Oandasan’s Round Valley Songs and Invocation LA: Urban Multi-Cultural Poets. These poets’ intervention was a breakthrough in gaining an audience, publishing, and laying the groundwork for later L.A .multi-racial literature which kept growing for the next 25 years and finally became accepted by 2015 as Los Angeles poetry with Luis Rodriguez the Poet Laureate of L.A.
Despite these omissions, Rachmuhl’s book is extremely valuable for showing how a French sociologist Bourdieu and Los Angeles historian Mike Daviscan help us understand how poetry is “a higher form of politics.” Rachmuhl’s portraits of neglected African-American and Chicano poets are both masterful, but her biggest accomplishment is her beginning to analyze the ground-up poetry revolution wrought in LA that eventually became the city’s literature by 2015. Anyone interested in contemporary U.S. poetry should read this book, and 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).