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L.A. Poets: The Meter Is Still Running

February 24, 1991|CAROLYN SEE | See's novel of the Pacific Rim, "Making History," will be published by Houghton-Mifflin this fall

Eleven in the morning and Chatterton's Book Store is packed. Outside, it's metallic and smoggy, Vermont Avenue on a Saturday morning the way it's been for 30, 40 years. The Dresden Room, where stand-up drinkers ingest the brown stuff for hours on end. Sarno's, where the proprietor got shot a while ago. Down a little farther, the College Grill, which sells balanced meals to thrifty students from LACC.

Street Corner College

We stand now and laugh

Watching the girls go by.

Betting on slow horses, drinking cheap

gin.

Up here, next to a club where live jazz is going on--at this hour--battered intellectuals drink cappuccino. Bachelors slink by, carrying Saturday's clothes to the Laundromat. Chatterton's is PACKED. It looks like a funeral, a wedding, both. A hundred people eat potato chips and blather on.

Folding chairs have been set up, crammed in. Today is part of a weeklong Los Angeles Poetry Festival, but the poets are only doing more, this week, of what they do all the time: They sing. They perform. They read. They go into elementary schools and get the kids to write books. They generate fights and then make them up. They write. And because, a few years back, the L.A. Times gave up running reviews of poetry, Los Angeles poets picket, and protest. And then go out and read to all the others in L.A. who have an aching place in their souls that only poetry can fill.

I washed my shirt in the rain.

It's probably radioactive . . . .

So this festival is just a thickening up of what these people (Jack Grapes, Harry Northup, Holly Prado, Wanda Coleman, Austin Straus, Manzanar Gamboa, Ko Won, Diane Wakoski, Laurel Ann Bogen, Charles Bukowski, Kate Braverman, Tim Steele, Lee Rossi, Bill Mohr, Bob Peters, Lawrence Spingarn, Eloise Klein Healy, William Vollman, Michael C. Ford, Terry Wolverton) do all the time here in L.A. Live the poet's life.

Because the East won't publish them, they do it themselves. Today, a publishing retrospective "celebrates 40 years." Somebody has begun talking about Small Presses, 40 years ago. Alexandra Garrett, co-founder of Coastlines. From back here you can't see her, but you do see the periodicals she holds up. She's brought a hell of a stack. "Here's Coastlines from 1960," she says, and it's like when you first fell in love: "It had Charles Bukowski in it" (you see the room in the old downtown library, where you could read "little" magazines), "and Estelle Gershgoren" (you remember Estelle dancing at a party with Max Novak, who would become her second husband) "and Bert Meyers" (Bert, handsome and devastatingly mean, telling me, over meat loaf at the College Grill, that I had no talent whatsoever) "and Tom McGrath." (Just as America's Blacklist was getting itself in order, McGrath was fired from City College.)

Who Fired McGrath?

The rhetorical question scrawled in white chalk on scores of crumbling sidewalk squares up and down Vermont Avenue. "And Vahan K. Gregory." (He hated a lady whose talent he envied, chunky female over at the big school.)

The kitchen cleaned, at last she relaxes;

Crosses her buxom bones at the knee

Poetess Laureate of U.C.L.A. . . .

Alexandra is still going on, waving periodicals in the air: "Jascha Kessler, the Emerson Review. Mumble, mumble, mumble. Here's a Statement from 1959. It didn't have an awful lot in it, and it wasn't very good." The audience listens with rapt attention and terrible tenderness. The printed word had promised to take them out of the brown world of the Dresden Room, or the confining dimensions of suburbia (Anne Stanford had four kids, and wrote about Magellan circumnavigating the world).

A whole world here today. Michael C. Ford, publisher of the Mount Alverno Press (1971-83), and the Sunset Palms Hotel Journals, speaks incongruously, as elder statesman. As a poet, he's forever young, chronicling our great escape South:

Noon! into the oblivion

Of sun in Culiacan . . .

The windshield is a translucent

Bug Cemetery

But Michael remembers 30 years ago, when word-struck kids collected money for Kenneth Patchen's Surgery Fund. Does it seem strange that, over at UCLA, or USC, or New York City , days go by when no one says Kenneth Patchen's name, but here everybody nods, smiles, remembers?

Is it only death that bothers you?

So many have done it, brother.

So many have turned up their poor toes.

But before Michael Ford, there's James Krusoe--tall, handsome, elegant in faded jeans, a legend. Krusoe teaches what may be the finest creative-writing class in the city. He measures success not by his own fine poetry but by his students'. (Erika Taylor has just sold her first novel, right out of his class.) His Santa Monica Review, beautifully printed, is student-oriented, quietly professional. You realize that a third of the people here are no more than 25 years old, students, ex-students, all of them with the sense of being in on something, getting to be part of poetic Los Angeles.

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