By Mike Sonksen a.k.a. Mike the PoetMay 16, 2015
A Higher Form of Politics: The Rise of a Los Angeles Poetry Scene by Sophie Rachmuhl
IN DECEMBER 2014, Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, in conjunction with the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Foundation, published A Higher Form of Politics: The Rise of a Poetry Scene, Los Angeles, 1950-1990. Written by the French scholar and professor Sophie Rachmuhl, this thorough account of Los Angeles poetry was first begun by the author in the late 1980s and is accompanied by a 94-minute documentary film that includes 10 short portraits of great Los Angeles poets like Wanda Coleman, Marisela Norte, Kamau Daáood, Laurel Ann Bogen, Dave Alvin, and the Grammy Award–winning musician Beck when he was a 16-year-old fledgling poet — all priceless footage shot in the late 1980s. Nearly 30 years in the making, this multimedia account offers the most detailed and comprehensive historical document yet on the Technicolor kaleidoscope that is Los Angeles poetry. The title of the book was taken from a quote in Rachmuhl’s interview with the late great poet Wanda Coleman, where Coleman said that “poetry was a higher form of politics.”
In recent years a few other books have tackled the large subject that is Los Angeles poetry. What makes Rachmuhl’s work distinctive is that she examines the diversity of the scene, with an almost equal focus on each group and corner of the city. Past studies of Los Angeles poetry covered the Venice Beats, Beyond Baroque (the Venice literary arts center), and the Watts Writers Workshop, while Rachmuhl captures not only these early seminal movements, but also Chicano poets, the Punk-influenced poets, the Leimert Park scene, the Woman’s Building community, LGBT writers, and the rise of Spoken Word. The only group she misses is the Asian American poets, though she briefly mentions Invocation LA, the anthology of multicultural poetry edited by Sesshu Foster, Michelle Clinton, and Naomi Quinonez in 1989. Overall, she does a thorough job of cataloging Los Angeles poetry from 1950 to 1990.
A series of events in February 2015 marked the release of the book. I attended two of the book releases (at Beyond Baroque on Sunday, February 15, and a panel discussion and screening of the documentary at Cal State LA on Thursday, February 19), interviewed the author, and also spoke to poets profiled in the work, including Marisela Norte, Kamau Daáood, Michael C. Ford, and George Drury Smith, the founder of Beyond Baroque.
Sophie Rachmuhl is a French Fulbright scholar who first encountered the Los Angeles poetry scene in 1984 when she came to UCLA as a visiting professor. Rachmuhl’s initial interest, as in the case of so many others, started with the work of Charles Bukowski. Reading Bukowski led her to begin exploring the city’s poetry communities. Immersing herself, she became enthralled with the scope and diversity of writers across Southern California. As time went on, her fascination with Bukowski was surpassed by her overall appreciation of the entire literary scene. She spent her spare time visiting as many poetry venues and bookstores as she could.
After returning to France for a few years, she then came back to Los Angeles in 1987 with the intention of documenting the city’s larger poetry scene, beyond Bukowski. During this time she explored literary venues all around Southern California and was blown away by the wide range of voices she heard. She also won the Ritz-Hemingway Award, which allowed her to make her documentary, a version of which was finished in 1988. While working closely with the filmmaker Willie Dawkins, shooting over 30 hours of film, she also wrote a massive dissertation on Los Angeles poetry in her native French. The 30 hours of film was culled into the 94-minute documentary film, Innerscapes, and the 600-page dissertation was published in France in 1996.
Her analysis particularly focuses, in her own words:
on the 1970’s generation of poets, especially poets who were particularly active or representative in the poetry community and who were facilitators between different poetry groups. They were the ones who, through a conscious collective effort to build up the local scene, gave it firm foundation to rise and grow from.
Her study follows three primary threads: “the city, the poetry scene and the poetry itself.” The text she presents includes quotes from interviews, poems, key historical events, and anthropological, literary, and sociological analysis.
She starts with a brief overview of the history of American poetry from the time of the American Revolution, through Modernism, and all the way to the 1990s. She touches on movements like the Language Poets, and she distinguishes them from ethnic poets. For example, she writes:
L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry was occupied precisely with deconstructing identity, while minority poetry was in search of identity. Previously invisible and excluded from history, identity writers used the same method to affirm their existence within the nation during the decades of struggle for civil rights as their country itself after independence.
And a few sentences later:
Ethnic minorities struggling for their rights found in poetry a weapon to be used against their oppressor and his language, and at the same time a tool to reinforce community cohesion and identity — a means for the exploration of a specific culture and history, especially oral.
Rachmuhl’s book focuses on these various communities of Los Angeles poetry because they were the foundation that the rest of the scene grew from.
If it were not for the efforts of George Drury Smith, the founder of the Venice-based Beyond Baroque, Rachmuhl’s book may never have been translated into English and condensed into the 250-page nonfiction narrative just published. “George Drury Smith has been essential to this project of publishing. As soon as he read my finished dissertation in 1996 [he can read French], he pushed me to get it published,” Rachmuhl told me in February. “And he immediately set about translating a chapter to show to publishers. Unfortunately, the last thing I wanted at that point was to have anything to do with my dissertation, which had taken so many years to complete.”
Rachmuhl ended up taking a few years off from the research to teach in France and have her children. She remained in touch with Smith, and close to 10 years later, Smith helped Rachmuhl find a publisher, Paul Vangelisti from Otis Books. Vangelisti has been a major figure in Los Angeles poetry since the early 1970s, and he quickly saw the importance of the project. Smith translated a part of what is now the fourth chapter to show to people who might help get it published, and Vangelisti and Beyond Baroque’s then-director Fred Dewey came to an agreement to share in the costs of publishing through Otis. “Otis students would do the final editing and design of the book,” Smith said.
“From the moment we started seriously working on it,” Rachmuhl told me:
It then took another 10 years for the translation, rewriting, polishing, updating, re-re-re-reading and checking every sentence in terms of content (for me) and style (for George) and conceptual simplification (George and I) and permission clearing; and for the Otis students and their professors Paul Vangelisti and Guy Bennett to check every page and ready it for publication.
The book lists both George Drury Smith and Mindy Menjou as the translators. “I met Mindy only once,” Smith told me, “before she began the work, and although we are both shown as translators, I had no further contact with her, so it was not a collaboration.” The initial translation they checked in 2007 was much longer and more difficult. “When Sophie and I reviewed the original proposed translation,” Smith said, “we decided that it reflected much too literally the complex academic language of the original and that we wanted to make it more palatable to a general audience while still retaining its academic integrity.”
The original longer version included a lengthy chapter about the history of Los Angeles and how the literary scene came to be. Rachmuhl had also wanted to publish an accompanying anthology with close to 100 Los Angeles poems included. “Ultimately, one long introductory chapter was eliminated,” Smith says. Furthermore, he notes, “Sophie totally rewrote a number of sections, and in the final version the nearly thousand footnotes were reduced to less than a hundred.”
Rachmuhl told me on more than one occasion how important Smith’s role was in the final product.
Through the whole process of translation we worked as a team with George, who was always ready to put in literally tens and tens of hours usually overnight working on the re-translation of a new chapter, or on a chapter I had corrected or rewritten. The manuscript went through probably four or five versions, maybe more, as I could only work on it intensively over the summers, and therefore the next summer we would read over the whole thing again, and thought we could better it some more.
They are both perfectionists with a lot of patience and endurance. In the end, Rachmuhl says,
George’s own labors and belief in the work really pushed me to get to work, on weekends and weeknights and summers, and is responsible for the book being published. He really carried the whole project through his encouragement and positive and affectionate writerly company. The outcome is very satisfying, and I think so much work and time has gone into it that the end product is very careful, as rarely books are.
Rachmuhl has so much gratitude to Smith that the book is dedicated to him and Wanda Coleman.
On February 15, 2015, Beyond Baroque celebrated the book’s release with Rachmuhl, Smith, Wanda Coleman’s husband Austin Strauss, Michael C. Ford, Jack Grapes, Laurel Ann Bogen, and Michele Kholos Brooks, who represented the late great Chicano poet Manazar Gamboa. Each of the poets read poems used in the book and also spoke briefly about the importance of the project. The event was closed with a powerful set of poets by Kamau Daáood, the co-founder of Leimert Park’s World Stage.
Daáood is one of the poets whose work is featured in both the book and documentary. “Sophie approached the LA poetry scene very organically,” he recently told me. “She embedded herself within the various poetic communities across the city, and this gave her a realistic view of the scene.” Other efforts to catalog Los Angeles poetry, he said, “have approached the scene from a strictly academic stance or just from the vantage point of the Westside.” Long known as a poet committed to his community, Daáood appreciated the time she spent getting to know each group. Daáood — who can be seen in the film reciting poems in front of the Watts Towers — was the youngest member of the Watts Writers Workshop in the late 1960s and is also known for his years of performing his poetry accompanying the jazz stylings of pianist Horace Tapscott and the Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra. Daáood’s The Language of Saxophones was published by City Lights in 2005.
Wanda Coleman is heavily featured in both the book and documentary. Coleman died in late 2013 and is generally considered the best-known poet from Los Angeles after Bukowski. The film opens up with a 12-minute segment on Coleman, first being introduced on stage at the Lhasa Club by the punk rock poet S.A. Griffin, then performing a few poems on stage, and giving a candid interview in her home. She talks about her writing process, the influence of growing up in Watts, and why she loves being considered a Los Angeles poet. Coleman can be seen editing one of her poems, listening to jazz and punching away furiously on a typewriter. When the documentary was screened at Cal State LA on February 19, one poet on the panel discussing the film was Marisela Norte, who is also in the book and film. Norte and Coleman were longtime friends from the early 1980s. “That moment in the film,” Norte told me after the discussion, “when she’s got her typewriter on the bed and the TV is on and Les McCann is playing ‘Compared to What’ is priceless.”
Two complete Coleman poems are included in the book and several pages of analysis accompany them. Rachmuhl discusses Coleman in the context of the 1965 Watts Rebellion, the Watts Writers Workshop that came together following the Rebellion, and the relationship that Coleman and these poets had with the Black Arts Movement, which was happening across the country around the same time. She discusses Kamau Daáood and Amde Hamilton from the Watts Prophets as well as Coleman. Though Coleman did spend some time in the Watts Writers Workshop, she was also affiliated with Beyond Baroque and other poetry scenes across the city. At the Beyond Baroque reading for the book held on February 15, Daáood told the crowd that it was Coleman who first told him to go to Beyond Baroque in the early 1970s.
Rachmuhl’s study also spends a significant time discussing Beyond Baroque and the Venice Beats. This history has been documented in a few previous studies and for this reason Rachmuhl does not belabor her points. The 2011 Hold-Outs: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948-1992, written by the poet and Long Beach State Professor Bill Mohr, published by the University of Iowa Press, covers this scene in extensive detail. Smith points out that although Mohr’s and Rachmuhl’s books cover the same period, “the two books are very different and they complement each other.”
For Smith, Rachmuhl’s book shows a “keen grasp of the overall sociological and cultural dynamics” of the literary scene, while Mohr presents a unique personal view, written by a major participant who was at the same time an important literary publisher. “Sophie,” Smith says, “observed the poetry scene firsthand and full-time over a number of years, and brings an outsider’s more objective view of the scene.”
Rachmuhl agrees that being an outsider was useful:
It enabled me to write with some kind of neutrality and serenity about a poetry that was both intensely personal and intensely public, yet mostly ignored by the literary establishment (universities and the East Coast literary world) and the entertainment industry that so dominated Los Angeles culture, where fame and power were so significant that they could blind the players to certain aspects of the scene.
The usefulness of Rachmuhl’s outsider status was also echoed by the veteran Los Angeles poet Michael C. Ford.
Rachmuhl calls Ford “one of the rare poets to bridge the gap between the Venice Beats and the later Los Angeles poetry scene,” and three of Ford’s poems are featured in the book. “It takes a girl from Bordeaux, France,” Ford told me, “to explain Los Angeles poetry to the rest of World Literature.” He appreciates what he sees as the freshness of her perception. Rachmuhl has
no preconceived conceits of how the LA urban sprawl engages its writers, no sloppy worship of one faction of Los Angeles poets over the exclusion of another, no previously sharpened axes to grind: just very clear portraits of writers with poetic conceits who, too many times during the war zone of over a half-century struggle for recognition, have experienced only a conspiracy of malignant indifference from East Coast literary establishment police.
Ford is known for his unique poetry and close association with the Doors. He met Ray Manzarek, Jim Morrison, and John Densmore, later known as the Doors, in Jack Hirschman’s poetry class at UCLA in 1964. The first time Ford performed his poetry in front of an audience was with the Doors at a benefit event for Norman Mailer in 1969. Ford has now published 22 books and has recorded a number of poetry albums. Ford’s recordings were also prominently featured on a series of poetry compilations produced by Harvey Kubernik in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These records also featured Wanda Coleman, Marisela Norte, Dave Alvin, and a number of other Los Angeles poets.
In discussing Norte’s poem “Se Habla Ingles,” Rachmuhl reveals how Norte’s poetry bridged Downtown Los Angeles, the Woman’s Building (an important LA literary institution), and East Los Angeles. Norte grew up on the Eastside and attended Schurr High School in Montebello. She is also famous for writing most of her poems on the bus.
In the documentary sequence filmed in 1988, Norte is shown in Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles amid palm trees and tombstones. She shares an excerpt of one of her bilingual poems in her signature delivery. Rachmuhl breaks down Norte’s interweaving technique in the book: “Spanish is used for direct speech,” she writes, for
the women’s questions about Los Angeles. English, on the other hand, is used for narration. Spanish is used for emotions, English for stereotypes. The Spanish recalls that “there” was once “here.” Finally, the interweaving of both languages denounces the exploitation hidden by cultural images and slogans. The desire to be elsewhere is manufactured in order to serve and maintain an imperialism which enslaves peoples and blinds them to their conditions, so they become dependent on consumption, and their lust for it.
When Norte gave public readings of her prose poems, Rachmul writes, she was so popular that her friends nicknamed her “Ambassador of East LA appointed by the East LA Ministry of Culture.” Regularly published in magazines and newspapers, a compilation of her work — Word/Norte — appeared on CD in 1991. Norte couldn’t recall, she said, if she met Rachmuhl at Calvary, or whether she first came to her home. “I remember how excited I was to meet with her and especially to show her around Calvary, which I thought she might like.” Back in 1988, the scene was one of homemade flyers put up at cafés and bookstores to drum up an audience for a gig. Rachmuhl was a critic interested in their work. “She wanted to know,” Norte said.
The fact that this interest came from outside Los Angeles was almost too much for my inexperienced little brain to handle. Then the first review of my spoken word CD Word/Norte came from the UK. The next one came from back East, a college radio station. It was never reviewed in Los Angeles.
At the Cal State LA panel alongside Rachmuhl and Smith, Norte spoke about her own entrance into the Los Angeles poetry scene. She recounted a story from 1978 where a professor of hers at Cal State LA insulted her writing and led to her immediately dropping out of her undergraduate work. It was at this point she began riding the bus across Los Angeles and writing her poems about the city. She also told the crowd at Cal State LA about a Latino writing workshop she attended on Spring and Seventh Street in the late 1970s with other Chicano poets like Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez, Naomi Quinonez, and Victor Valle. In the years after this, Norte began performing her poetry with the famous Chicano art collective ASCO in venues like Self Help Graphics as well as at the Women’s Building and in the Punk Rock scene.
In early 2014, Norte was commissioned by the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority to write a poem about Union Station and her experiences writing on Los Angeles public transportation. The resulting poem, “Train of Thought,” was published in a book celebrating the 75th anniversary of Union Station. Norte recited this poem at Cal State LA on February 19 and also told a few stories about her deep connection to the city. (See this video clip for the footage of Norte reading the poem and telling the story of her professor calling her “illiterate.”) Her inclusion in this multimedia project and publication bring belated recognition to this poet who has given her heart to the city.
Rachmuhl also highlights Chicano poets Victor Valle and Manazar Gamboa. She discusses seminal literary magazines like Con Safos and Chismearte and anthologies like Two Hundred and One: Homenaje a la Ciudad de Los Angeles/The Latino Experience in Los Angeles. These publications epitomize the Chicano cultural movement and the aesthetic concerns expressed by Chicano poets. Rachmuhl also shows how these publications share aesthetic and ethical principles with the Black Arts Movement and the Woman’s Building. One of the poems she presents in this segment is Victor Valle’s “epic triptych” “Ciudad de Los Angeles.” This three-part bilingual poem sheds great light on Los Angeles history including: “how it was settled, its population, its place in the region — from various angles.”
The book is very thorough and this comprehensiveness is further reinforced by the documentary. The film itself is comprised of 10 seven to 12-minute segments. The clips include Los Angeles streetscapes, live readings, and behind-the-scenes interviews with each writer. The vintage footage of the poets from the late 1980s is breathtaking. In addition to the footage of Coleman, Daáood, and Norte, the well-regarded poet Laurel Ann Bogen is shown reading at the George Sand Bookstore. Bogen’s work “Untitled LA Poem” opens up the book. In the film she discusses the evolution of her poetry and tells Rachmuhl that though her earlier work was more self-indulgent, she gradually became more “humanistic.” There is also footage of the poet and singer-songwriter Dave Alvin. The Downey-born Alvin is known for both his association with Gerald Locklin at Long Beach State and for his connection to rockabilly and punk rock in bands like The Blasters and X.
The documentary includes segments on a few poets not mentioned extensively in the text. One of the poets in the film is none other than Beck Hansen, now better known as the famous musician Beck. Rachmuhl filmed him as a 16-year-old poet with three poetic comrades. In the sequence, they can be seen making zines and reading journal entries to one another. Norte knew Beck in these early days and tells me she still has letters he wrote her and some of the early zines he published.
The book and documentary originally were accompanied by a third element, an anthology of Los Angeles poems. This third part was not included in the English edition, although perhaps it can some day be published as an anthology. The three decades of work that went into creating this multimedia account, the candid portraits of Los Angeles poets presented in both the book and in the film, and Rachmuhl’s painstaking and incisive analyses do indeed reveal that poetry in Los Angeles is “a higher form of politics.”
LARB Staff Recommendations
Daniel Olivas interviews the self-described “Chicana feminist jota poet from East Los Angeles.”
THE POET LAUREATE OF SOUTH CENTRAL, the most extraordinary woman on the Los Angeles poetry scene, is dead, just a week after her 67th birthday...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!