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Poetry Los Angeles: Four Books for National Poetry Month

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Detail of the cover of "Poetry Los Angeles" published by University of Michigan Press

For the final week of National Poetry Month, L.A. Letters spotlights four books pushing the poetic envelope. Three of the books are poetry volumes, and the fourth is a longer review of a new extended anthology called "Poetry Los Angeles."


"Jimmy's Blues and Other Poems" is a collection of 25 poems by the late great James Baldwin, recently published by Beacon Press. Several poems in this edition were previously only found in a limited edition art book, long out of print. Baldwin's poems are every bit as fierce and elegant as his nonfiction prose and fiction works, like "The Fire Next Time," "Go Tell it On the Mountain," and "Notes From A Native Son." The core of this collection was published four years before he passed in 1984, as "Jimmy's Blues." The new edition is introduced by National Book Award winner Nikky Finney with an extended essay that reveals his love for poetry and his lifelong quiet practice. According to Finney, "Poetry helped thread his ideas from the essays, to the novels, to the love letters, to the book reviews, stitching images and feeling into music, back to his imagination."

Baldwin's poems, as Finney notes, were an important form which he utilized as his sounding board to keep him close to the music. Finney explains, "I believe he wrote poetry throughout his life because poetry brought him back to the music, back to the rain ... Compression. Precision. The metaphor. The riff and shout. The figurative. The high notes. The blues. The reds. The whites. This soaking up. That treble clef. Bass. Baldwin could access it all -- and did -- with poetry." Finney's assessment is dead on. The poems definitely sing musically and possess a pointed compression felt in every line. Similar to his prose, Baldwin moves swiftly through emotional registers into dramatic narratives. The opening poem "Staggerlee Wonders" is political, polemical, and satirical. There are punchlines about "Ronnie Reagan" and "the Sandinistas" on par with Gil Scott-Heron's "B Movie." Within his laser sharp lines are also a contagious joy. "Some days worry/ some days glad/ some days/ more than make you/ mad. / Some days, / some days, more than/ shine: / when you see what's coming/ on down the line!" These poems help further elucidate the genius of James Baldwin.


"The Ants" by Sawako Nakayasu, published by Les Figues Press as a part of their Global Poetic Series, is a genre-bending collection of prose poems that come together in a manner like Calvino's "Invisible Cities." Venturing into the realm of a fiction novella, the extended metaphor offers an expose on the inside life of an insect, specifically an ant. "The great desire is to get inside of it -- the poem, the painting, the movie, the music." The mythical landscape she creates takes the human to the level of the ant and the ant to the level of the human. "Some ants aspire to greatness, some long for a little break, others float peacefully along in a leaf-boat they believe is bound for eternal glory or sweetness." As these lines demonstrate, some of the pieces are very philosophical and some more humorous, taken together they do possess an organic unity similar to other well-received conceptual works by Gertrude Stein and Harryette Mullen; Nakayasu's abstraction is on the same level as these greats. Idiosyncratic and inventive, this collection is ideal for those looking for daring and extra creative poetry.


"The Arc of the Day/ The Imperfectionist" by Steve Shrader is published by Tinfish Press. The 150 poems in the collection are from two volumes. Originally from Cleveland, Shrader lived the final 40 years of his life in Hawaii until he passed in 2007. After being an award-winning poet at the Iowa's Writing Workshop in graduate school back in the 1960s, Shrader got a job teaching English at the University of Hawaii. As the old story goes, once he arrived he never left. His poems go far beyond the Hawaiian Islands, tackling literature, history, politics, and turning a critical eye towards both himself and the mainland. Many of his poems are in the formalist tradition of haikus, pantoums, sonnets, and sestinas. Shortly before his unexpected death, Shrader had passed the manuscript off to a close friend. The book is dedicated to his half-Japanese son and there are many poems addressing him, their extended family and deeper history. There's also deadpan humor like in the two line poem "Headline." Shrader writes, "former hippie/ kills chicken." Shrader uses the poetic forms well to mix a cocktail that is self-deprecating, honest and deeply lyrical.


"Poetry Los Angeles" by Laurence Goldstein, published by University of Michigan Press, is a landmark work that is both an anthology and insightful work of critical commentary. The subtitle, "Reading the Essential Poems of the City," offers a clue to the work's intention. Goldstein presents 40 poems he deems the essential poems of the city. Many of the problems often encountered with literary criticism on Los Angeles are avoided here because Goldstein is a Southern California native. Born in Culver City and a graduate of UCLA, he lived the first 22 years of his life in the Southland. In 1965 he went to Brown University for graduate school where he got his Ph.D. He began teaching at the University of Michigan after graduate school and remains there to this day.

In the Preface he explains how he's always loved poems about place. He writes, "I underwent the exile's fate of becoming increasingly fascinated by the place I had left behind, realizing as I absorbed more of the general cultural fixation on Los Angeles that in fact I had lived in a locale of enormous significance for the past, present, and future history of the U.S. and the world." Goldstein began spending his vacations and summers in L.A. and gradually accumulated a notebook of L.A. poems. Goldstein has authored several other books over the last three decades, including two poetry books and several scholarly titles including "Writing Ann Arbor: A Literary Anthology."

He offers two cautionary notes that also show his wisdom and experience. He writes, "This is not a study of Los Angeles poets, many of whom have published high-quality work on a variety of topics. This is a study of poems about Los Angeles, whether by local authors or visitors." He continues, "I have tested these poems on many readers, students and faculty alike. I exhibit them in these essayistic pages with confidence in my judgment and the certain expectation of contrary opinions." The book even includes an Appendix that lists "Twenty More Poems About Los Angeles." His efforts to be thorough are obvious.

Goldstein is a first-rate literary scholar highly skilled at scrutinizing poetry of place. His close reads of poems by Robinson Jeffers, Thomas McGrath, Eloise Klein Healy, Wanda Coleman, Michelle T. Clinton, Lewis MacAdams, Jack Hirschman, and Suzanne Lummis, among many other are illuminating. The book is organized geographically; for example the "South Central" chapter focuses especially on Wanda Coleman, with further poems and commentary on Harryette Mullen, Jack Hirschman and Ice Cube. Goldstein briefly mentions Budd Schulberg's Watts Writing Workshop.

He even writes a 20-page chapter, "How Good, or Bad, is Charles Bukowski's Poetry?" He reveals his own early interest in Bukowski from 1965 and how it transitioned and changed as the years went on. Perhaps to some, this chapter may be like Wanda Coleman's "Maya Angelou" review, but the chapter offers an alternative vision of L.A.'s most famous wordsmith. Goldstein writes, "In the realm of mainstream and academic criticism he scarcely exists except as a code word for the kind of artless poet who attracts groupies -- in his time the alter ego, or alter id, of equally famous Rod McKuen." He then supports this claim with his extended essay.

Goldstein's book is well over 300 pages and establishes an important precedent for literary scholars studying Los Angeles Poetry. The poems selected were from a diverse pool of poets and, as he notes, not all of them are local poets; the quality of the poem was the determining factor. He notes the hundreds of other poems that were considered for the book before he narrowed it down to the 40 selected. These poems, combined with his insightful commentary, make the book a roadmap for those looking for an entry into Los Angeles poetry. Enthusiasts of Los Angeles Poetry, Angeleno history buffs and educators alike will find magic in this work.

Clearly the next book an astute publisher should assemble is a larger anthology of 150 to 200 poems about Los Angeles. There are dozens of potent Los Angeles poems to be considered, by writers like Marisela Norte, Sesshu Foster, Luis Rodriguez, Kamau Daaood, K. Curtis Lyle, Will Alexander, Laurel Ann Bogan, and so many others. Goldstein's own poem, "The Celebrity," is a compelling piece about the time the poet saw Mickey Cohen in his childhood. There are countless poems about neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, Leimert Park, Long Beach and other pockets of greater Los Angeles. "Poetry Los Angeles" is a groundbreaking book that opens the dialogue up, and will hopefully lead to many more books and future scholarship on literary Los Angeles.

As National Poetry Month comes to a close, the four books selected this week represent the breadth and depth of American poetry. Salute to James Baldwin, Sawako Nakayasu, Steve Shrader and Laurence Goldstein; these potent writers are titans in the topography of L.A. Letters.

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