Documenting the Rise of the Los Angeles Poetry Scene

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Wanda Coleman at The Smell, 2007 | Photo: Harold Abramowitz/Flickr/Creative Commons

Carrying on the spirit of preserving Literary Los Angeles from last week's essay, this week L.A. Letters spotlights a two-tiered project that includes both a book and documentary. Sophie Rachmuhl's new book, "A Higher Form of Politics: The Rise of a Poetry Scene, Los Angeles, 1950-1990," also includes a 94-minute documentary titled "Innerscapes: 10 Portraits of L.A. Poets." This latest offering from Otis Books, Seismicity Editions is an important contributor to the emerging interest in the history of Los Angeles Poetry.

Sophie Rachmuhl is a French Fulbright Scholar that first came to Los Angeles to teach at UCLA in 1984. During this time she began frequenting literary venues around Southern California and was very impressed with the wide range of voices she saw. Along the way, she won the Ritz-Hemingway Award and this allowed her to make the aforementioned documentary which was originally finished in 1988. The hours of research and many interviews she conducted also led her to write a 600-page dissertation based on Los Angeles Poetry, which she originally composed in her native French.The new volume that was just published by Otis Books in co-production with Beyond Baroque Books was translated into English by Mindy Menjou and George Drury Smith, the founder of Beyond Baroque, and the narrative has been trimmed down to just under 250 pages. The longer French version was published in France where Rachmuhl has taught English at several universities and has been an Assistant Professor at the University of Bordeaux since 2001.

A series of family and career obligations prevented her from publishing the project in America until recently. Fortunately the quality of the project makes it worth the wait. Horace Tapscott's biographer and the Editor of "Central Avenue Sounds," Steve Isoardi told me, "She has been a friend, supporter, and scholar of the Los Angeles poetry scene for some thirty years. Through her writing and filming she has diligently and incisively chronicled this community and presented it to students and audiences here and in Europe." The years of research shine through in both the film and book. Most of the original interviews and field work was done in 1987 and 1988, but she revised and edited the manuscript to update it over the last few years.

What separates Rachmuhl's work from previous efforts to catalog Los Angeles poetry is that she manages to cover the diversity of the scene with an almost equal focus for each group and corner of the city. Past studies of Los Angeles poetry zeroed in on more of the Venice Beats, Beyond Baroque or the Watts Writers Workshop. Rachmuhl not only covers these early seminal movements, but she covers 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 L.A.," the anthology of multicultural poetry edited by Sesshu Foster, Michelle Clinton and Naomi Quinonez in 1989. All and all, she does an excellent job of cataloging Los Angeles poetry from 1950 to 1990.

Her study particularly focuses "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 analysis follows three primary threads: "the city, the poetry scene and the poetry itself." The text she presents includes quotes from interviews, poems intermingled, key historical events and anthropological, literary, and sociological analysis. The cultural history embedded in the work connects the dots from Modernism to the 1980s.

In addition to insightful passages on figures like Wanda Coleman, Kamau Daaood and Michael C. Ford, Rachmuhl also puts the important work of the Eastside poet Marisela Norte in proper context. Norte's work is both discussed in the book and featured in the documentary. Rachmuhl features Norte's poem, "Se Habla Ingles," in the book and also reveals how Norte's poetry bridged between Downtown Los Angeles, the Woman's Building and East Los Angeles. Norte grew up on the Eastside and attended Schurr High School in Montebello. She still lives on the Eastside in Monterey Park in the liminal neighborhood where Montebello, Monterey Park and East Los Angeles all meet adjacent to the 60 Freeway.

Norte 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 amidst 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 when she writes, "Spanish is used for direct speech: 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."

Rachmuhl's analysis further highlights the significant versatility of Norte's work on multiple levels when she writes: "She also gave public readings of her prose poems, which were so popular that her friends nicknamed her 'Ambassador of East L.A. appointed by the East L.A. Ministry of Culture.' She was also regularly published in magazines and newspapers, and a compilation of her work appeared on CD in 1991, 'Word/Norte.'" These words on Norte are important because she has been an important pioneer for Los Angeles poetry for many years, Rachmuhl places her work in the correct historical context.

In addition to Marisela Norte, Rachmuhl highlights other Chicano poets like 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 epitomized the Chicano cultural movement and the aesthetic concerns expressed by Chicano poets. Rachmuhl also shows how these publications shared 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 and accompanying documentary were also intended to be joined with a third element, an anthology of Los Angeles poems. This third part was not included in the English edition, but nonetheless, the documentary complements the book extremely well. The two mediums reinforce one another and definitely come together to create a historical record greater than the sum of its parts. The vintage footage of the poets from the late 1980s is mind blowing on its own. The value is further compounded by the fact that the $12.95 price includes both the book and film.

The film itself is comprised of ten segments that run between 7 to 10 minutes each. The clips include Los Angeles streetscapes, live readings and behind the scenes interviews with each writer. Wanda Coleman is shown both typing poems at a typewriter on her bed at home, and on a large stage performing her poetry in a night club. Coleman's candid behind the scenes commentary on her work is priceless and the cinematography really captures the late 1980s aesthetic. Kamau Daaood is shown reading his poems in front of the Watts Towers and discussing his role as an oral historian. His poem, "Los Angeles," is included in the conclusion of the book.

Laurel Ann Bogen is shown reading at the George Sand Bookstore. Bogen's work, "Untitled L.A. Poem," opens up the book. In the film she discusses the evolution of her poetry. She tells Rachmuhl that her earlier work was more self-indulgent and how she gradually became more humanistic. Bogen can be seen reading a poem titled, "The Meteor," a piece dedicated to Michael C. Ford. In recent years, Bogen has become one of the best known Poetry Professors in Los Angeles from her work at UCLA Extension. Later this year, Red Hen Press will be releasing her Collected Poems. Bogen has been an active Los Angeles poet since the 1970s, her inclusion in the book and film further solidify her longevity.

The documentary that comes with the book 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 his three poetic comrades. In the sequence they can be seen making zines and reading journal entries to each other.

Another poet featured in the film that she does not discuss in the book is the African-American poet, Dr. Mongo. Dr. Mongo has been a fixture in the Los Angeles Poetry scene for 50 years. The Cleveland-born Mongo started performing poetry in L.A. during the early 1960s. He is considered to be a pioneer of Spoken Word and performance poetry. One of his best known recent poems is, "I was in jail with Paris Hilton." In the film Dr. Mongo says that he writes poetry for truck drivers, convicts and lumber jacks. He also says he likes to recite his work everywhere from street corners, parking lots to public bathrooms. Dr. Mongo was the resident poet at Al's Bar in the Arts District during the 1980s. In the documentary he can be seen walking on Western in Koreatown near 5th Street. Rachmuhl's footage of him is important because most of Mongo's work has been in the community. Most recently, Mongo has been known for activist poetry in Skid Row.

The documentary also shows the famous poetry teacher Jack Grapes and singer-songwriter, Dave Alvin along with a few others. The Downey-born Alvin was 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 film is an invaluable historical document and it also hints at the rise of performance poetry and spoken word that happened even more in the 1990s.

Sophie Rachmuhl is coming to Los Angeles in mid-February for the project's release and she will be making appearances at both Beyond Baroque and Cal State Los Angeles. The Cal State L.A. event is on February 19th and will include both the screening of the film along with Rachmuhl in dialogue with Beyond Baroque founder, George Drury Smith followed by a poetry performance by Marisela Norte. Norte's appearance at Cal State L.A. is also especially meaningful because she attended the school in her formative days over three decades ago.

There's no question that Los Angeles poetry has become a dynamic force in the city's cultural landscape. Sophie Rachmuhl's book and film illuminates the evolution of Los Angeles poetry and does an excellent job at covering all corners of the city. Salute to her efforts, this project is destined to be a timeless touchstone in the topography of L.A. Letters.