This week L.A. Letters explores two exceptional new books: "Urban Tumbleweed" by Harryette Mullen, and "Never Built Los Angeles" by Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell. Mullen's is a book of cutting edge poetry, and "Never Built" is an art book dealing with Los Angeles architecture and urban history. Their common bond is that they both take place in Los Angeles and offer an alternative vision, pregnant with hope and what really could be.
"Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary," published by Graywolf Press, is Harryette Mullen's new book of poems, written from her daily habit of walking around her neighborhood and surrounding areas. Many of the poems were written in Santa Monica, Venice, West L.A. and Westwood, where she is Professor of English and African-American Studies at UCLA. Mullen adapts the Japanese tanka poetry form for her own purposes and uses it masterfully.
In the book's short preface, "On Starting a Tanka Diary," she explicates her methods: "With the tanka diary to focus my attention, a pedestrian stroll might result in a poem. Merging my wish to write poetry every day with a willingness to step outdoors, my hope was that each exercise would support the other." Mullen succeeds in her intention, and then some. A small number of tankas were written during her travels and residencies in Texas and Sweden.
Tankas are traditionally 31 syllables in Japanese. Mullen explains that her contemporary tankas, composed in English, "depart from established convention in both languages, choosing instead a flexible three-line form with a variable number of syllables per line." Tanka after tanka, she illustrates the landscape with brevity, humor and crisp detail. The work collects 366 tanka verses, representing a year and a day of Mullen walking and writing. Here's one that any frequent shopper can relate to:
Two seagulls face off in the parking lot
Between Costco and In-N-Out,
Quarrelling over a half-eaten hamburger bun.
I first heard of Mullen in 1997 during my final year of UCLA. My friend Jake was in her poetry class, and her workshop was very well spoken of. During this time a few of us would ride the bus all over the city and write poems about our missions. Reading these tankas reminds of those days, though Mullen's short city poems are infinitely more advanced and precise than our early earnest poems. Nonetheless, the skill Mullen shows in tanka after tanka will inspire many a writer to look a little closer at the city and take some time to write about it.
Mullen's work reflects the true bliss that can emerge from this practice. There's definitely music and a wide range of sensory perception in every single line. She captures many iconic southern California images in her own inventive way. Here are two ideal examples:
Even the chilliest winter day
at Santa Monica beach is still warm enough
for surfers in wet suits to hug the waves.
Along the two-lane desert highway,
solitary Joshua trees appear at regular intervals
like posted mile markers.
These brief yet rich short poems preserve each moment in a beautiful snapshot. She uses her three-line tanka form so skillfully, it reminded me of why I would always take my journal with me on trips across the city. As Mullen says in her preface, "each outing, however brief, becomes an occasion for reflection. Los Angeles, however urban, offers everyday encounters with nature." The three-line form gives her a template and this structure serves her purpose well. Longer poems about a city walk could be much more unwieldy; instead she makes three-line gems every time. I'm not the only one inspired by Mullen.
Douglas Kearney is an award-winning poet and professor at Cal Arts. Kearney counts Mullen as a huge influence on his work. He writes, "Double-jointed with the lingua, Harryette Mullen is at least once, twice, three times a two-head. Her mumbo comes only in Jumbo portions, so even in her skinniest editions, I sit up well-fed [...] No other writer has so fundamentally rewritten my poetics, refocused my eyes, retuned my ears, and rattled my brain."
Kearney is absolutely correct in this assessment and "Urban Tumbleweed" testifies to his praise. Mullen is a magician. She's authored seven previous books of poetry, including another masterpiece, "Sleeping with the Dictionary." The execution and verisimilitude of her verse is a joy to read. "Urban Tumbleweed's" dynamic combination of creative content and meticulous form culminate into something truly exceptional. The book is an instant classic.
"Never Built Los Angeles," by Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell, is a mind-blowing volume of over 100 visionary designs that never made it past the drawing board. Created in conjunction with an exhibit at the Architecture and Design Museum, "Never Built" offers a window into a future we could have had. Page after page the book shows "what if" master plans by luminaries like Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, the Olmsted Brothers, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Morphosis, and dozens of other important architects. For enthusiasts of urban history, the roster of architects will be enough alone. The exhibit has been so popular that the museum just extended it for two more weeks until October 27.
In the book the authors describe each project, and then put its scenario into context with what was happening in the city at the proposed time. For example, Frank Gehry's never-built headquarters for the Southern California Rapid Transit District in 1991, is "an unfolding skyscraper wrapped in a metallic skin. Its base would have flanks flapping like trousers in the wind, while its pinnacle would have looked like a jester's cap tousled into three riotous towers. Conceived more than 10 years before the Walt Disney Concert Hall, it would have been the most adventurous building in a skyline that sorely lacked brio."
Gehry's never-built skyscraper is one of the most progressive tall buildings I've ever seen. It's easy to see that the recent Gehry-designed skyscraper in Manhattan had earlier roots in this never-built structure. The sheer majesty of many of these projects often leaves patrons of the exhibit frustrated that our city fathers didn't pull the trigger on some of these designs. The book contains a few semi-well-known never-built projects, like Neutra's unrealized housing development in Chavez Ravine and the Beverly Hills Freeway, but most of the plans presented in this book will be new to even longtime city mavens.
In the authors' introductory essay, "City of Illusions," they attempt to explain why these projects were never built. They attribute much of it to the city's political landscape. "Since political power in Los Angeles is concentrated in unelected and usually invisible commissions, from the airport to parks to public works, the best ideas don't have the kind of single, design-conscious, czar-like champion they deserve. No Robert Moses could ever hold sway here; even the mayor is far too weak under the city charter to do much more than hold press conferences."
The authors also address political inconsistencies of the city. "The vast opportunities for architects and developers in the residential realm also starve the public realm. Talent gets comfortable rolling out individual homes and doesn't want to mess with the thorny public stuff." Truer words have rarely been written.
Economics always dictates how a city gets built, and once an architect gets used to big money from private clients they don't "want to mess with the thorny public stuff." "Never Built" shows the projects in all their glory, before cold realities like building budgets and political pitfalls stifle the construction and conversation. The full-color regalia of master plans in these pages, combined with the utopian and experimental urbanism presented within, make for a majestic dream-book and fantastic roadmap to Never Built Los Angeles.
"Urban Tumbleweed" and "Never Built Los Angeles" are two dynamic volumes that will inspire readers for years to come. Salute to Harryette Mullen, Greg Goldin, and Sam Lubell for crafting two books extremely relevant for contemporary Los Angeles; these three authors are alchemists of L.A. Letters.
Top: Robert Stacy-Judd's plans for the never-built National Hall in Hollywood.