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L.A. Letters Celebrates Poetry Pioneers and Publishers

Following last week's list of poetry venues for National Poetry Month, this week L.A. Letters salutes publishers of poetry and an important anthology. There's no shortage of slick poetry books, whether it be published by a small press like L.A.'s Les Figues, a major house like Penguin, or a university press like Wesleyan. I am always on the lookout. I'd like to start with City Lights Books because they are celebrating their 60th anniversary this year.

I've written before how visiting City Lights Bookstore is often the first thing I do when I arrive in San Francisco. Their third floor poetry room is one of the most comprehensive poetry sections in any bookstore in North America. Furthermore, City Lights has published several hundred poetry titles over the last 60 years. The City Lights Pocket Poets Series will always be the holy grail for poetry books, with volumes on giants like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Jack Hirschman, Phillip Lamantia, Frank O'Hara, Kamau Daaood, David Meltzer.and Gregory Corso, among many others. I know I'm not alone when I say it's a starting point for countless young poets.

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Over the last few years City Lights have also published their Spotlight Series, featuring poets like Anselem Berrigan, Will Alexander, Andrew Jordon, and others. They've also done great books by Sesshu Foster and Ry Cooder's book of short stories, "Los Angeles Stories."

One of the latest City Lights book is actually a reissue of a project started over 50 years ago, called "Robert Duncan in San Francisco." Written by Michael Rumaker, it is a memoir that captures Cold War-era San Francisco gay culture and poets like Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, who inhabited it. Rumaker had been a graduate student studying poetry with Robert Duncan, and moved to San Francisco just as the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance tookoff in the 1950s. Rumaker describes the climate of police persecution and how it impacted the underground community of gay artists and writers who made San Francisco so creative during the era.

Robert Duncan was one of the most important poets from the period. Rumaker's book isn't so much about Duncan as it is about the author coming to terms with his own sexuality and seeing his mentor as an example of how to survive the oppressive conditions of 1950s America. Duncan was ahead of his time and his frank homosexuality inspired Rumaker to embrace his own. "Robert Duncan in SanFrancisco" stands with books like Christopher Isherwood's "A Single Man" as important works on gay liberation.

City Lights Founder and poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is still going stronger than ever at 93 years old. His new book "Time of Useful Consciousness," published by New Directions, is a tour-de-force. He calls it "a fragmented recording of the American stream-of-consciousness, always westward streaming, a people's poetic history."

Moving across the trajectory of his life, Ferlinghetti goes from the Second World War to 9/11. For that matter, back to the Gold Rush and Trailof Tears. His camera eye misses nothing. "Dark mind dark soul dark age / A man made of steel / on a horse of gold / and the horse hitched to a prairie wagon." He addresses Walt Whitman and Martin Luther King and leaves no stone unturned in his poetic exploration. "Man too stupid and too greedy / to save himself from eco-catastrophe." Or in other lines like, "A sweepstakes Winner Take All / A shooting gallery / for masters of war / Abull market with toreadors."

New Directions is an independent publisher even older than City Lights, dating back to the Depression, and its history is every bit as storied. More about them in a future column. This new book by Ferlinghetti is a keeper andcontinues his legacy.

"The Open Door," published by the University of Chicago Press, is an anthology that celebrates the 100th anniversary of Poetry Magazine. Published in Fall 2012, the book features 100 poems from 100 years of Poetry Magazine. Edited by Christian Wiman and Don Share, it features usual suspects from the magazine's history like T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, W.B. Yeats, Leroi Jones, Langston Hughes, Bob Creeley, Wallace Stevens, and others, but it also includes quite a few lesser known poets that were also published in the magazine.

Poetry Magazine was started in Chicago in 1912 by Harriet Monroe. Monroe, writes Christian Wiman, "wanted a magazine equal to the art and architecture she saw everywhere around her in turn-of-the-century Chicago; add ninety years of persistence and poverty, a dozen editors feeding and herding poets like feral cats; add a$200 million windfall in 2002 from the reclusive Ruth Lilly, and you have a seemingly unkillable magazine."

Ruth Lilly left her giant fortune to Poetry because she loved the magazine over the years and they always responded to her when she submitted work. Nobody saw her endowment coming, but her gift has allowed Poetry Magazine to start the Poetry Foundation and build a beautiful building in Chicago, which just opened last year. The new structure houses the magazine staff, and also has a state of the art performance space to host live readings. I went there last year during the AWP Writing Conference and was impressed by the monument they've built for poetry.

Poetry Magazine's website contains thousands of poems, with all the poems ever published in the magazine over the last century. This new anthology captures the cream de la crème of their storied history.

Les Figues Press is an L.A.-based small press that I first discovered in Fall 2011 in the small library at Occupy L.A. on the northern grassy side of City Hall. I saw their book, "The New Poetics," by Matthew Timmons and thought the book looked innovative and progressive. I tried to buy it off the guy there and he told me they didn't take cash. The bookstore wasn't a bookstore, it was a lending library. Explaining more, he said that the barter system was their currency. I thought about a box of books I had at home to donate. I told the guy watching the books that I'd be back. He was cool enough in the meantime to let me take Timmons book. I did bring back a box of books to donate the next day, even taking special care to give them books concerned with social justice. This time a woman was watching the library. I left the books with her and split.

My intuition about the quality of Timmons' poetry book proved to be right. "The New Poetics" is a nonstop barrage of sentences tied together by the new: "The New Movements, The New Myth, The New Names, The New Narrative." Jumping from new to new all through the alphabet for 110 pages, this is prose poetry on a hyper level. Timmons knows the state of contemporary poetry as well as the history. For example:

The New Prose Poem invaded The American Prose Poem with Poetic Form and the Law of Genre. In the hands of the Language Poets, The New Prose Poem insisted on its illegibility rather than a speech-based comprehensibility. When rewriting the sentence with the language and poetry of the New Prose Poem does language control like money? If you ask two student volunteers to read the New Prose Poem, and then ask students to discuss a few leading questions: How does the sound of the poem change?

Theory and poetic history appear throughout the work, but just when it seems to get over-theoretical, the humorous and absurd make their way into his narrative in short pieces like, "The New Motherfuckers" and "The New Rejection Letter." An element of the surreal threads through the work and balances out the tone.

"For Want And Sound" is Les Figues' latest poetry book, composed by poet Melissa Buzzeo. Equally engaging as "The New Poetics," Buzzeo investigates boundary-less-ness in a cycle of poems that inhabit memory and geography. "The text coming apart: Old houses and wallpaper." Embracing the city and architecture, these poems use landscapes of memory to contemplate the human condition. "Everyone moved here leaving the foreignness of tongue the gardens overrunning the house." There's a minimalism in her verse that lends to the books poignancy. Buzzeo's book is the last of the six-book "TrenchArt: The Surplus Series." Les Figues Press is definitely pushing the envelope.

Before closing out this column I want to give a shout to Writers At Work, a Los Angeles-based writers group that serves an important function in L.A.'s literary community. In addition to workshops and salons, they do a number of programs to empower writers and help them fulfill their goals. Founded by long time Los Angeles poet and professor Terry Wolverton, they foster a supportive environment and are known for their diverse style and eclectic group of voices.

I first learned of Wolverton and her group from AK Toney back in 2007. He told me of her countless writing prompts and great ability to motivate writers. They've produced a number of anthologies and do frequent readings. Skylight Books will be featuring Terry Wolverton and Writers At Work for National Poetry Month this weekend for a free workshop, called "The Secret Life of Poems." Skylight's invitation describes it more: "Terry has invited six next generation poets -- Ashley Blakeney, Rachelle Cruz, Ashaki M. Jackson, Eden Jeffries, Menhaz Sahibzada, and Andrew Wessels -- to discuss their writing process and the techniques they use to create their poems."  

Next week L.A. Letters will talk about more new poetry books, L.A. small presses, and a few events. In the meantime, here's to Writers At Work, the next generation poets, Les Figues Press, and pioneers like City Lights, New Directions and Poetry Magazine. They are luminous beings in the firmament of L.A. Letters.

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About the Author

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