Tuesday, May 04, 2010

One value of Sarah Rosenthal’s sumptuous collection of interviews, A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Bay Area Authors, just out from Dalkey Archive, is Rosenthal’s introduction to the collection, which offers a solid history of Bay Area poetry. Like the interviews themselves – a dozen in all, averaging maybe 25 pages in length – Rosenthal’s intro shows a depth of homework on her part that may come as a sobering reminder to the Facebook generation that this is how it’s done when executed properly. The book contains discussions with Michael Palmer, Nathaniel Mackey, Leslie Scalapino, Brenda Hillman, Kathleen Fraser, Stephen Ratclife, Robert Glück, Barbara Guest, Truong Tran, Camille Roy, Juliana Spahr & Elizabeth Robinson.

Not that the introduction is perfect. Whether it’s an emphasis here¹, or a detail there², one could argue the minutiae because the larger structures are basically right on. Rosenthal is careful to document her sources & qualify her approach, noting that Stephanie Young’s Bay Poetics includes 110 poets, dozens of whom could just as easily have been interviewed here. Personally I hope Rosenthal continues her work here. Future volumes beckon. Some writers I would love to see Rosenthal devote this same attention to would include Judy Grahn, Lyn Hejinian, Al Young, Kit Robinson, Etel Adnan, Bob Grenier, Bill Berkson, Bev Dahlen, Dodie Bellamy, Mark Linenthal, Norma Cole, Joanne Kyger, Kevin Killian, Barbara Jane Reyes, Aaron Shurin, Robert Hass, Pat Nolan, Alice Jones, Stephen Vincent, Eileen Tabios, Bill Luoma, Laura Moriarty, Alli Warren, Stephanie Young, Jack Hirschman, Curtis Faville, Diane di Prima, David Melnick, Michael McClure, Norman Fischer, Adam Cornford, Mark Linenthal, Jack Marshall & Jack Foley. That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure I’m forgetting as many others just as worthy.

The one thread I don’t feel Rosenthal’s introduction does sufficient justice toward is the relationship between post-avant writing & literary traditions that consciously understood themselves as working class &/or even lumpen in their orientation. One is that post-Beat aspect of street poetics that has roots in the New American Poetry, from the late Bob Kaufman to Jack Hirschman to many of the poets particularly around North Beach. A second is a similar approach to LGBT poetries. Paul Mariah & Steve Abbott are gone, as are Pat Parker & Paula Gunn Allen, but it would be really useful to note how the interactions of these writers informed & impacted much that is covered here. Mariah, for example, was as instrumental in keeping Jack Spicer’s memory & work alive in the first ten years after his death as anyone. I was surprised to see Claudia Rankine note the Left/Write Unity Conference spearheaded by Abbott & Bruce Boone in her blurb on the book’s back cover, but not to see it mentioned in the introduction. The important role Actualism – explicitly a Bay Area literary movement – played in the poetries of the 1970s (especially in the “poetry wars”) is entirely invisible here. Given Rosenthal’s own engaged approach to poetics, these little blindspots seem surprising.

All of which is to say that Rosenthal’s introductory history is superb, tho the reality was still a dimension or two more complex than even a first-rate telling can suggest.


¹ Barbara Guest, to my reading, didn’t just continue “to produce important work” once she moved to Berkeley in her seventies, she really blossomed, becoming one of the most influential poets of the past 30 years & offering a model for “late work” that may yet prove transformational for poetry going forward.

² e.g., “Spicer … spent much of his adult life moving within a few blocks in San Francisco’s North Beach” ignores Spicer’s soujourns to Minneapolis & Boston, his day jobs – when he had them – in Berkeley, and the simple fact that his home at Polk & Sutter, an address made famous for poetry by John Wiener’s Hotel Wentley Poems, is a considerable distance from North Beach. The same holds true for Spicer’s favored afternoon hangout of Aquatic Park.