This year, Beyond Baroque is celebrating its anniversary with exhibits, performances, and presentations by figures who have been part of this institution since its creation in 1968. On Saturday, March 3, Smith offered a highly personal reflection on the experiences that led him to create Beyond Baroque and guide its initial decade of operation. He arrived in Southern California at the tail end of the Beat generation and on the cusp of 1960s counterculture. Smith’s personal search for a literary community first drove him to create a magazine and then to establish a physical location to support innovative work, initially on what is now Abbot Kinney Boulevard, and then in the old Venice City Hall, where Beyond Baroque still makes its home.
Hearing 91-year-old Smith speak with wit, modesty, and intellectual generosity, one is struck by the realization that a single individual’s conviction can give rise to a major cultural project. The name “Beyond Baroque” pays homage to the sensibility of the 16th- and 17th-century Spanish writers whose work Smith admired. Though he never quite fulfilled his personal dream of fostering a poetic community that would produce word-playing, metalinguistic, ornate writing built on their sensibility, he admits that what did come into being at the organization was much richer and more vital than he could have imagined in that initial formulation. Smith’s founding vision and his achievements are well worth celebrating. Though his central engagement with the organization ended decades ago, his spirit of eclectic inclusion has prevailed, and Beyond Baroque has managed to escape becoming aligned with any single aesthetic position or literary movement.
Beyond Baroque is the longest extant center for literary activity in Los Angeles. Its Wednesday-night poetry workshop has run continuously for decades, almost since it opened its doors. Situated on Venice Boulevard just west of Lincoln, near an old trolley stop for daily beach-goers, Beyond Baroque has a reputation that far outstrips its modest institutional scale and premises. But its long-term success as a site of multifaceted community activity isn’t simply a matter of prime beachside real estate. A number of factors came together in the founding and early years, including Smith’s publishing vision, a surge in public funding for the arts in the 1970s, the relative lack of competition within Los Angeles for audiences and venues for literary work, and the willingness of individuals to contribute energy and time to the undertaking for minimal monetary reward. These created fortunate circumstances. Unlike San Francisco, with its thriving Beat scene, including the famous City Lights in North Beach, Los Angeles was not considered a major center for literature in the 1960s. Beyond Baroque established a visible node of activity within what many considered a provincial backwater, and by its presence helped alter that perception.
Smith was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1927, two years before the stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression. His early years were neither culturally privileged nor materially affluent. Through his presentation, we got a glimpse of his education in the 1940s, in the middle of the American heartland. The story contains useful lessons to counter assumptions about provincialism. A self-described awkward child, inept at social life, and even more poorly suited to sports, Smith was fortunate enough to have had a few inspired teachers who threw him a literary lifeline. He was introduced to the writing of Gertrude Stein and to writers published in the annual New Directions anthologies. His early encounters with avant-garde, experimental work were transformative. The role of the New Directions anthologies is especially important: these carefully curated conduits for contemporary literary practice brought innovation to far-off places in ways that Smith would replicate through his own publication activity.
In the early 21st century, our aesthetic monoculture is as stifling as provincialism. The “everything is available online” mantra of access belies the fact that finding compelling, significant literary work remains, in its own way, as difficult as it was in the 1940s — because of the surplus, rather than the scarcity, of available materials. The role of editors, publishers, critics, and curators in venues like Beyond Baroque (and LARB) is crucial; they call attention to work worthy of attention amid the clamor of today’s all-access world.
Smith was both lucky and perceptive. He found a few points of connection, and then followed them. On a brief trip to Paris, drafted into the Army, he was able to attend a performance of Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts, scored and directed by the composer Virgil Thomson. The important point is that he knew to go. By the time Smith decided to found Beyond Baroque in the mid-1960s, he had traveled in France, Spain, Austria, and Germany, had been to college on the GI Bill, and had taught briefly as a graduate student. When he found that the Beat scene in Venice West that Lawrence Lipton had described in his 1959 book The Holy Barbarians was largely defunct, Smith decided to start a journal of his own, something that would call a community into being. His agenda was pragmatic but idealistic — to publish on a more regular basis than the annual New Directions, and to bring innovative work into print in formats that were less conventional than the academic literary journals that dominated (and still do) the literary world. Placing a call for submission in a few key national venues, and calling for “unprosaic poetry and unusual prose” to foster “nascent literary trends,” Smith generated a healthy stream of contributions.
Meanwhile, Smith acquired a property in (then) funky, unpretentious, and inexpensive Venice. This modest venue for readings, workshops, and print and typesetting equipment were the starting point for the 50-year institution. Early photos show cluttered rooms, couches with lounging figures, overflowing ashtrays, masses of books and papers, in a casual and very-used setting. In the 1970s, printing technology had diversified sufficiently that affordable equipment could be acquired and used by small arts organizations. This made an enormous difference in publication possibilities. The Varityper, IBM Selectric, Roneo stencil printer, and other low-end machines provided production means as well as a revenue stream (doing job work) that supported the publication of the literary journal. In addition, as Smith pointed out, one of the crucial factors in the organization’s success was that it acquired nonprofit status and was then able to use the discounted postage rates that allowed him, and his collaborators, to send out over 4,500 free copies of their publications.
The effect of this postal distribution network cannot be overstated. The virtual presence of Beyond Baroque far exceeded its local stature, even as it played a crucial role in the formation of a Southern California literary scene. Beyond Baroque’s inventory of accumulated chapbooks and periodicals, numbering over 25,000 items, is testimony to the breadth of its profile. Editors, authors, and poets from all over the country (and even beyond) sent their publications to Beyond Baroque as part of a lively exchange. These artifacts — stored in the closets, nooks, and crannies of the current location — frequently contain personal notes asking the staff to accept the publication for the library or consider its author for a future program. The Beyond Baroque library of small press and literary work grew by leaps and bounds, particularly under the stewardship of Alexandra Garrett, a professional librarian, fostering connections and exchanges with creative communities all around the country. The collection tells a tale of literary publication over the last half-century, and future researchers will discern an elaborate network of exchanges and influences in its acquisition history.
Smith is almost 92, and his personal records of the founding and development of Beyond Baroque are intact, as are his memories and capacity to recount them. Materials in the many boxes in the organization’s archive (photos, flyers, financial records, press releases, and correspondence) speak volumes about the vibrant and complex life of a cultural institution. Beyond Baroque constituted itself locally while also creating an image and identity far afield. The work of scholars William Mohr, Sophie Rachmuhl, and others studying the history of the literary scene at Beyond Baroque has already contributed considerably to documenting its activities.
At the end of his wonderfully frank and unpretentious talk, in which he straightforwardly described his struggles with alcoholism, gay identity, money troubles, and other issues, Smith reiterated his set of core beliefs. Instead of bringing an ideal “beyond the baroque” literary movement into being, Smith created a real community, with a multifaceted, still-developing life of its own. Whatever disappointment he may have experienced in not having found those kindred spirits who aligned with his own sensibility was more than compensated for by the discovery of worlds beyond it.
Smith could have told his story as a triumph of cosmopolitanism over the provincialism of the small Midwestern town in which he was born. But he did not. His childhood environment contained roads to a broader world, if he cared to follow. The most virulent form of provincialism is orthodoxy — a restricted range of ideas that leaves no way out for the curious — and that can exist anywhere. Smith’s entire life and career have been an exemplary embodiment of orthodoxy’s opposite: inclusion and discernment. Beyond Baroque was lucky in its founding, but its fortunes have risen and fallen on successive waves of affluence and restriction, of the support of national funding agencies and their reduced budgets, and on the waxing and waning of communities of interest. As with all institutions, its continued existence relies upon a skillful combination of continuity and reinvention, and we can only hope that the openness of mind and spirit that characterizes its founder as well as its current leadership, will continue to guide its growth in the century to come.
Other programs to celebrate the anniversary will follow throughout this year, including an exchange in July between Smith and Jim Krusoe, another key player in the publication and programmatic activity of Beyond Baroque’s first decades. (See the center’s website for programs related to this anniversary year.)
Johanna Drucker is Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA. She has written extensively on graphic design and digital aesthetics. She has been working with students, fellow faculty, and volunteers to inventory the archives at Beyond Baroque. A project to create a web-portal to the archive, and host materials relevant to the center’s history, is underway.