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Playing Politics In The Poetry Game

February 23, 1986|NANCY SHIFFRIN | Shiffrin is a Los Angeles poet who has been published in a number of national periodicals. She has contributed articles and reviews to The Times Book Review and View sections

Mecca for Los Angeles area poets is a large, drab stucco building near the beach on Venice Boulevard.

Once Venice's town hall, it now houses the Beyond Baroque Foundation, a literary arts organization where a poetry reading is the sine qua non of career building for local poets. But first you have to get there.

"It took me 10 years to get my reading at Beyond Baroque," says Laurel Ann Bogen, author of "Do Iguanas Dance, Under the Moonlight" (Illuminati Press). That's 10 years from the time she began reading in public and attempting to be recognized for her work.

Along the way she had achieved moderate success. She had been profiled in local newspapers and had performed in nearly every other reading venue in the city. But a reading at Beyond Baroque never materialized, no matter how many times she tried.

"They (Beyond Baroque's reading committee at the time) told me that my work wasn't strong enough, yet I knew that lesser-known and less-experienced poets were invited to present their work," she says.

Finally, in 1984 Bogen was asked to participate in a fund-raising event for Beyond Baroque. "They knew I drew audiences," Bogen says. "I knew they'd have to give me my reading. So I made sure to ask again."

The management of the foundation and the reading series had changed hands by that time, and Bogen did get to read last summer, to a standing ovation.

Bogen is talking about the politics of Los Angeles poetry--the activity of getting what often begins as very private writing into the public awareness. That means readings, publication and recognition as a poet. In a city where intimacies and animosities among writers have developed over the years, it can also mean getting to know the right people.

When asked about their careers, other poets also revealed similar painful episodes about how tough it is to break into the Los Angeles "scene" and expressed fears of being quoted for publication. One well-known poet and publisher of poets told of a time when his mail, and that of a few other poetry editors, was forwarded to another city. They later found out that phony forwarding address cards were filed with the post office--possibly the act of a disgruntled poet who imagined that these editors had enormous power in the poetry marketplace.

Another magazine poetry editor's tires were slashed. Someone calling himself "the poetry mafia" left messages on the answering machines of several local poetry editors taking credit for both the slashed tires and the falsely forwarded mail. "This person accused us of controlling all of Los Angeles poetry. We're still afraid to talk about this," he says. "We're afraid to fan the flames."

Poets can't pay the rent by writing poetry, as some novelists, screenwriters and journalists can, and only a few can earn a living from teaching, performance and writing about poetry.

The situation is exacerbated for poets living outside New York. Recognition in New York makes one a national and international literary figure ipso facto , simply because publishing is concentrated there. Poets published elsewhere, including here in Los Angeles, are forced to conquer the country piece by piece.

"The entire world is blind to Los Angeles poetry," claims novelist and poetry reviewer Holly Prado. "Los Angeles is associated with film, television and music industries. This puts our artists in a kind of vacuum."

But Prado feels that living in a vacuum keeps L.A.'s poets from getting serious about their careers as writers. "It contributes to poets playing around," she says. "It took me 15 years to develop the stamina to write a novel." More important, however, says Prado, is the reluctance of L.A. writers to talk about writing. "I'd like people to come to me and argue and ask questions and challenge me about my work."

Agreeing with Parado is Dennis Phillips, director of the Beyond Baroque Foundation: "Poets work very independently here," he says. "When I read in San Francisco recently (from his new book "The Hero Is Nothing": Koyak Press), a lot of people wanted to get together with me afterward to find out my ideas."

In Los Angeles, however, there's a lot of anti-intellectual posturing, a refusal to discuss the aesthetic under-pinnings of one's work. Poet/editors Lee Hickman and Clayton Eshleman have tried to counter that with their publications, Temblor and Sulfur, but have been "attacked for being elitist," Phillips said. He would like to see more poets stay after readings. "I'd like people to feel they can come to Beyond Baroque to argue," he says. "Poets don't treat each other very well," Phillips adds.

Poet/teacher Jack Grapes, who feels that poets disenpower themselves, said "There are cliques here, and some people are excluded--but not as consciously as they think.

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