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A Poet's Gotta Do What a Poet's Gotta Do

July 09, 1995|RIP RENSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A colleague announced to me long ago, "My girlfriend's a poet." I resisted an urge to shoot back something like, "Oh. For what firm?" Or, "Really. Does she have a dental plan?"

You see, I don't think of writing poetry as a profession, or an occupation. To me, it's more a preoccupation--a function of one's nature.

You no more announce that your girlfriend is a poet than you proclaim she is a philosopher or a mystic. Writing poems is something you do because you have to--rather like a curse. You see a rose, or a three-legged cat, and you must write about it.

Poets who regard their work as a profession can wind up as Edgar Allan Poe did--drunk, sick, broken-hearted and dead too soon. (Either that, or they make blue-jean commercials that air on MTV.) Philip Larkin, a very great poet, was a librarian. Probably had a dental plan.

Scott Wannberg, rest assured, is a poet. Oh, his words might not be widely published, might not even be noticed much when he recites them aloud, but it doesn't matter. He is cursed. He sees the rose and the three-legged cat all the time. He must write.

I've noticed, in this era of the hyphen and the slash, that many people claim the title "poet" or "artist," "writer," "actor" on business card and resume. I've actually seen a guy on TV--a nice enough chap, it seemed--identified as a "poet/journalist." (Assign that man to the O.J. trial, I say.)

It seems that in order to claim these time-honored, hallowed titles nowadays, one must merely have written a poem, or painted a picture, or invented a story, or acted--once, twice, occasionally. I write once in a while, therefore I'm a writer, etc.

All dubious respect to the business card poets/artists/writers/actors out there, but dabbling doth not a lofty title merit. You're doing guys like Wannberg a serious disservice.

I mean, I knew Wannberg back at Venice High School when he was 16 and \o7 speaking \f7 poetry. You couldn't shut him up. It was a stream-of-consciousness kind of Chick Hearn-meets-Charles Bukowski narrative about friends and current events heavily laced with references to Sam Peckinpah movies and neighborhood dogs.

He couldn't help himself. Somewhere along the line, he damned the stream and started capturing the words on paper, found he couldn't stop, then enrolled at San Francisco State University and majored in creative writing (translation: poetry). This, I think, was essentially a device to facilitate writing as many poems as possible while earning a diploma.

God knows, a degree in creative writing doesn't set you up for power lunches and a BMW. In Wannberg's case, it hasn't translated to much more than a couple of burritos on the MTA bus that takes him home.

Today, Wannberg is an L.A. fixture, if not a minor icon. He's been reciting his poems at readings around town for 20 years now, has published three volumes of it (one carries the memorable title "The Electric Yes Indeed"), and occasionally tours the Western states in an old Cadillac with a bunch of other poets calling themselves "The Carma Bums."

They descend on coffeehouses from Seattle to San Diego, make enough money for gas and hamburgers, then go back to their day jobs. This is roughly the wordsmith equivalent of being a rock star.

As far as I know, Wannberg has never announced his occupation as "poet." In a society with a media that routinely equate barely literate pop music lyrics with poetry, he settles for the title "clerk" in Dutton's Books, a reader's bookstore on San Vicente in Brentwood.

He's been there, across the street from that lovely median strip of coral trees, since 1980. If you drop in, you can't miss him. He's the big, hulking, impossibly well-read, garrulous guy who seems to know where all the books are buried; the one who leaves more than a few customers in mild shock as he tells them exactly how--or how not--to find an opus they haven't been able to find anywhere else.

"It's a living," he'll tell you. "At least I'm not working for the CIA, or the O.J. trial."

I dropped in on Scott the other day, to talk and give him a lift home. I found him outside the bookstore, having a gentle conversation with a customer's golden retriever. I swear the dog was smiling and nodding. Maybe it liked poets (or poets' dog biscuits--Scott keeps several boxes of treats behind the counter for visiting canines).

Wannberg told me that he's finishing a book of poems about the O.J. trial, titled "Juice! The Musical" (Rose of Sharon Press), to be released July 16. In a few minutes, we were driving down Bundy, speculating about the dearth of empathy in the late 20th Century, eyeing the eternal gawkers outside Nicole Brown Simpson's condo.

"God," Wannberg said, "it's just a building. What are they going to do, bow to it? Like Mecca? Guess they think it beats going to a porno theater."

He mentioned that he and fellow Carma Bum S.A. Griffith were interviewed on KXLU-FM recently about proposed National Endowment for the Arts cuts. I was reminded that this poet is a realist.

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