murguia.jpgAlejandro Murguia at the SF Int'l Poetry Festival, 2012 | Photo: San Francisco Public Library/Flickr/Creative Commons

City of Poets: Four Poetry Titles from L.A. to San Francisco

The last two weeks of this column featured a litany of venues for live poetry, the next two weeks will showcase a selection of poetry books. This week L.A. Letters spotlights four recent poetry books with connections to San Francisco, the Beat Generation, and Surrealism. Next week even more titles will be discussed.

It is no secret that San Francisco has a storied literary history. The knowledge of this legacy usually focuses on the Beats and San Francisco Renaissance; however there is a parallel literary history equally rich but much less known. Dating back to the Vietnam-era, up until our present time, a cadre of Chicano, Central American and Native poets have published and produced a catalogue of poetry books and organized hundreds of important readings.


Alejandro Murguia

One of the central figures from this collective over the last four decades is the poet, teacher, publisher, and community activist Alejandro Murguia. Murguia was recently appointed the official Poet Laureate of San Francisco and he intends to expand the national and international perception of the city's epic poetic legacy. This appointment is also extra significant because Murguia is the city's first Latino poet laureate.

Murguia grew up in Southern California before migrating to the Bay Area in his early 20s as a fledgling poet in the early 1970s. Over the last 40 plus years Murguia has been heavily engaged in the city's literary scene as a writer, educator, and activist. Murguia is also known as a self-made man that worked several odd jobs in his early writing years, even driving BART trains at one point, before he eventually earned his MFA and gained the experience and influence he has now. Another figure from the same era with an equal amount of experience and parallel poetic path is Juan Felipe Herrera, the current Poet Laureate of California. Though they both were all over the city, the Mission District figures especially prominent in their journey.

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City Lights is commemorating the new laureate by publishing his manuscript, "Stray Poems," as the sixth edition of their San Francisco Poet Laureate Series. Murguia's book joins the elite company of previous laureates Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Janice Mirikitani, Jack Hirschman, Devorah Major, and Diane di Prima. Murguia's 35-plus poems are introduced by a nearly 30-page "Inaugural Address" in which he outlines San Francisco's Latino and Native literary history and shares relevant poems underscoring his message. Murguia writes in his opening that he is thrilled to use his new position to highlight this lesser-known community of writers:

The truth is that we never left San Francisco, we have just been left out. But now that we are on stage, now that our history is finally acknowledged, these currents and threads have come together -- so that from now on, when we talk about the literary history of San Francisco, we can talk about the Beats, the non-Beats, the Mission Poet, the Asian American poets, Afro-American poets, all of us singing the songs of our times and our place here in this beautiful city of poets.

This theme of the City of Poets is not only one of his book's central motifs, but one of his primary intentions as the city's new poet laureate. His book includes a few poems translated in Spanish, as well as several multilingual poems in a variety of forms, from prose poems, haiku, to longer performance pieces. Murguia concerns his work more with sincerity and truth than anything else. "I come to poetry out of necessity in a way, out of an urgent need to define who I am but also as a way to give voice to my community. To me poetry should be read out loud," he writes.

Murguia even outlines a number of projects he intends to put in place during his term, like a youth poetry festival and "poetry in public spaces like bus stops, Muni shelters, inside buses, outside buses, poetry on murals all over the city." He also hopes to put plaques throughout the city honoring Bay Area's lesser-known literary heroes, like Oscar Zeta Acosta and some of the elder Guatemalan and Nicaraguan poets who mentored him, like Roberto Vargas. Murguia closes his inaugural address by writing: "Never forget that San Francisco is the city of poets -- therefore, each and every one of you is a poet until proven otherwise."


Michael McClure

City Lights' central role as a bookstore and publisher in this city of poets is undeniable. City Lights celebrated their 60th anniversary last year and continue to publish books in multiple genres and host more events than ever. Earlier this week on April 17, Los Angeles-based Kaya Press celebrated their 20th anniversary with a reading at City Lights. One of Kaya's best known books, "City Terrace Field Manual," is by Sesshu Foster. Foster's two books with City Lights, "Atomik Aztex" and "World Ball Notebook," both won several awards.

City Lights has recently published a new edition of Michael McClure's "Ghost Tantras." Long out of print, the 99 poems in the book are definitive pieces in a signature manuscript that was originally self-published in 1964. Perhaps the closest work to it is Jack Kerouac's "Mexico City Blues." Composed in what McClure calls "beast language," the grammar and register blends lion roars, laryngeal, guttural, and lyrical sounds into short musical poems that are visceral more than anything. Similar to Kerouac, the message is more of music and energy than a straightforward narrative. Blending a few lyrical lines with his detonated dada makes for a surreal poetic read. For example, "Here is total acceptance and god-belief/wrapped in one hagreeow graharr"; or "Typewriters of mystery and ferns/ett aye-oh lah. The grim gray becoming what we/once knew and have forgotten/ The Voice that is Eternal."

McClure's "Ghost Tantras" are aptly named. Allen Ginsberg said at the time that "McClure's poetry is a blob of protoplasmic energy." The musical and visceral energy of the work is not meant to follow a traditional narrative; nonetheless 50 years after its original publication, the dynamic sounds of the work seem contemporary and timeless simultaneously. McClure has always written about the animal consciousness in mankind and these poems capture it especially. Page after page the lines merge: "Through the char ahh noh-eeh Koarahs and winged/Doric pleasure in the reservoir of still silence."

Larry Jordan, Michael McClure, and Philip Lamantia (kneeling), c. 1957 |<br />
Photo: Nata Piaskowski via City Lights Blog

Philip Lamantia

The University of California Press recently published, "The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia." Lamantia along with McClure also participated in the legendary Six Gallery Reading in 1955 where Ginsberg first presented "Howl." Lamantia's own work was championed by none other than Andre Breton, the French founder of Surrealism and Kenneth Rexroth, a leading figure in the San Francisco Renaissance. Lamantia is known for being a bridge between the Beat and surrealist movements in North America. His collected poems is a landmark tome over 400 pages that not only features his best known work but an extensive selection of unpublished and uncollected work. He also has his share of poems that create new words akin to McClure's "Ghost Tantras." His surrealist scats are what he sometimes call "Babbel poems." He explains, "Babbel is a language extending the sonic level of the poem---in pure song flight---to maximum points and turned OUT to further dimensions connotative, denotative languages cannot reach!" Lamantia advocates mapping "a world of sonic trance."

This collection is especially important because Lamantia died in 2005 and interest in his work continues to grow, especially following recent book awards by contemporary surrealist poets like Will Alexander. Moreover, though the book is not on City Lights, Lawrence Ferlinghetti writes the book's Foreword. Dating back to the early years, City Lights published several books of Lamantia's poems and City Lights is still very connected to the new book because of not only Ferlinghetti's Foreword, but the team of three editors, Garrett Caples, Andrew Joron, and Nancy Peters are also City Lights associates who worked together to complete the herculean task of assembling Lamantia's extensive papers. The encyclopedic tome is a treasure trove for not only longtime fans of the poet, but for newbies interested in the Beats and surrealism.

Ferlinghetti reminisces about the first time he met Lamantia in the Fillmore District sometime in 1954. He describes the spirit of the era, "listening to the likes of Lamantia and Robert Duncan carrying on brilliant stream-of-consciousness discourses that flew over my head like exotic birds making letters with their legs." He also notes the time when he first encountered the poet, "Lamantia's voice was the most distinctive poetic sound I had ever heard." The award-winning Los Angeles surrealist poet Will Alexander told me that the first time he spoke to Lamantia, the conversation lasted 12 hours. By all accounts Lamantia was equally mystical, whether it was in person or reading any of his hundreds of published poems. There are countless examples of his visionary ethos and phrasing. His ecstatic bursts of language are punctuated with phrases like, "I liquidate by magic!" Lamantia's "Collected Poems" are a comprehensive road map to an alternative poetic reality.


S.A. Griffin

The final book discussed in this account is the recently published "Dreams Gone Mad With Hope" by the Los Angeles poet S.A. Griffin. Published by Punk Hostage Press, Griffin is a descendant of the Beat poets and was born at the intersection of Punk Rock and the San Francisco Renaissance. Griffin's poetic career has also been parallel but in the opposite direction of Alejandro Murguia -- Griffin grew up in the Bay Area and came to Los Angeles in his early 20s. Both men have served their adopted cities with fierce loyalty for several decades. Griffin's activism and his work touring over the last 25 years are well known, especially his Poetry Bomb project.

Griffin's poems negotiate tough territory, like the demons of his abusive stepfather and the death of his close comrade the poet, Scott Wannberg. Most of all though, he encourages readers to follow their dream or, as he writes, "long live the song of yourself." In a few short years Punk Hostage Press has published almost 20 books, with many more in the works. S.A. Griffin epitomizes the spirit of their press with both the veracity of his work and his connection to both the Beat Poets and Punk Rock.

There are countless other poetry titles to discuss, and next week will include more. Not only is San Francisco a "City of Poets," the same is true in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Boston, and hundreds of other cities across America and the world. The four books presented here are a great example of the dynamic literary spirit pervading poetic cities. Salute to San Francisco's new poet laureate Alejandro Murguia and his mission to spread the city's untold literary history. Respect also to the poets Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia and S.A. Griffin, these four literary lions are leviathans in California and L.A. Letters.

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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