Book Review: L.A.'s Poetry Renaissance Captured in 'Hold-Outs'

Detail from the front cover of the book 'Hold-Outs'
Detail from the front cover of the book 'Hold-Outs'

For nearly 50 years, Los Angeles participated in what Bill Mohr dubs a "West Coast poetry renaissance," a time stretching from 1948 to 1992 and one rich with writing that was vibrant, dissident, spontaneous, as well as structured. Mohr, the founder of Momentum Press and a poet himself, captures this half-century of exuberant creativity in his terrific new book "Hold-Outs: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948-1992" (University of Iowa Press).

The book begins by exploring notions of region and locale, questioning the all too frequent equation of "West Coast" with "San Francisco." Mohr also insists that a history cannot ignore "the material basis and practice of the art being examined," but must instead pay close attention to the tools and technologies that underlie the production of poetry. As such, Mohr details the actual printing and distribution processes as they evolved over five decades, and indeed, in one section, recalls his own painstaking efforts to publish an issue of his journal Momentum using a typesetting machine that required physically shifting fonts, an idea that seems unimaginable today. "Trying to produce narrow columns of type on a machine on which one could not see the columns made me feel like an airplane pilot without radar on a foggy night."

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'Hold-Outs' Cover
'Hold-Outs' Cover

The history takes us back to the late '40s and early '50s, when various poets in Los Angeles began to come together. Mohr writes, "The most astute readers of contemporary poetry in 1953 and 1954 would have some sense that a new convergence was thickening on the West Coast." He continues: "No other region in America had four independent literary magazines of the feisty caliber of California Quarterly, Variegation, Inferno and Golden Goose."

Mohr's account is rich with anecdotes and portraits of poets. Mohr tells of Don Gordon, for example, who moved with his parents to L.A. in 1912, attended Los Angeles High School and Pomona College, and after graduating, worked in the film industry assessing novels as potential fodder for screenplays. Gordon joined the Communist Party in the 1930s and was later subpoenaed to appear before the House on Un-American Activities Committee, where he refused to answer questions. He was subsequently fired from MGM. Gordon was also a poet, and Mohr describes him as "the most self-effacing political poet of the postwar era." He reports that while Gordon continued to write poetry after his HUAC experience, it forever colored his perspective on the United States, and indeed, he developed an incredibly bleak worldview. "One could, I supposed, accuse him of thematic monotony," writes Mohr, "except that his poems prove that no other genre is capable of allowing an artist the steadfast gaze of prophecy ignored."

Mohr goes on to describe the evolution of several small presses, as well as the congregation of raucous poets who made up Venice West, which by the late '50s had become "a major thoroughfare of alternative artistic practice." Mohr argues that the analysis of the body of work produced by the Venice West poets may not shift traditional histories and their key figures, but it does reveal "thoughtful poetics underneath the image of spontaneous and improvised activity."

The history moves on to describe the highly significant role of the Venice-based literary organization Beyond Baroque, which was founded in 1968 by George Drury Smith and moved to what was the Venice City Hall in 1979. Today it continues to be an artistic and creative hub for Los Angeles-based poets. He also describes the influence of other organizations, including the Women's Building and the Watts Writers Workshop.

Mohr's account is richly detailed and, with its anecdotes and portraits, a delight to read. The city comes alive through an eclectic and passionate group of people and their writing, publishing, reading and sharing. Further, Mohr's is a generous and passionate voice, refusing to codify and cement a single history, but determined that there be some acknowledgment of the Los Angeles poetry renaissance and that it at once be part of a legacy, if only to question the limits, exclusions and boundedness of such a term.

Bill Mohr will discuss and sign "Hold-Outs" at Diesel, A Bookstore in Brentwood on Thursday, January 19, at 7:00 p.m. He will also read from "Hold-Outs" at Beyond Baroque on Saturday, February 11, at 9:00 p.m.

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