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The Poets of San Diego

Brown: “My theory is that there is an image pool 
that all women at certain levels can tap into."
  • Brown: “My theory is that there is an image pool that all women at certain levels can tap into."
  • Image by Jenny Wrenn

Perhaps one of the mediating factors between San Diego and an active poetry scene is demographic. New York is an island. San Francisco is a peninsula thrusting up into cold waters, Paris is a city built on a grid of concentric circles. Somehow the idea of an active artistic community coincides with numbers of people living in close quarters who feel that beyond their city is the wilderness. Beyond San Diego is more San Diego... or Los Angeles. The tissue of freeways and boulevards, housing tracts, resort parks and split level living in general carves up the landscape according to algebraic propositions rather than topographic features.

Michael Davidson: What is lacking most in San Diego is a gathering place: a Cedar Bar, a Shakespeare and Company, a Cafe Odeon, an Intersection, a 291. But where would it be located?

Michael Davidson: What is lacking most in San Diego is a gathering place: a Cedar Bar, a Shakespeare and Company, a Cafe Odeon, an Intersection, a 291. But where would it be located?

It is also no accident that the life of the arts in the past has depended to a large extent on a sense of alienation and resistence. Zurich Dada, after all, was formed by a group of expatriate Europeans fleeing World War I and seeking a neutral country. Paris during the twenties became a culture of exiles from America and London. And the San Francisco ‘Beat' movement was established not so much by local writers but by a New York book-dealer, a Columbia dropout and a railroad brakeman from Lowell, Mass. It’s difficult to feel like an alien in Southern California, it so assimilates its visitors, pats them into places and leaves them at the edge of the ocean. The “center” of things seems miles away.

Eleanor Antin as “The King." Her monologues and meditations become the vocal parts of extended personal projects centering around kings, ballet dancers and other roles.

Eleanor Antin as “The King." Her monologues and meditations become the vocal parts of extended personal projects centering around kings, ballet dancers and other roles.

But it is precisely the imagination of a center which could redraw the grid and redefine a locus of artistic attentions more in proportion to what is actually here. In this sense, I am not attempting to deal critically with the poetry written but more the fact of its occurring at all.

What is lacking most in San Diego is a gathering place: a Cedar Bar, a Shakespeare and Company, a Cafe Odeon, an Intersection, a 291. But where would it be located? In Mission Beach? Downtown? North County? The sheer logistics of getting from one part of town to another to visit, discuss writing, attend readings and the like is formidable. The idea of “dropping in” on a bar twenty-five miles away inhibits motion. It's significant that for a city like New York, the action takes place in a relatively small area: roughly twelve blocks square. And San Francisco’s North Beach, during its heyday in the late fifties, was within twenty minutes by bus from almost anywhere in the city.

David Antin's poetry is concerned with a multiplicity of language “events.”

David Antin's poetry is concerned with a multiplicity of language “events.”

The logical places in San Diego would be the schools, and there are a number of them offering poetry readings, courses in writing and a congenial faculty of writers and students. San Diego State, for example, offers a B.A. and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. Teaching courses in poetry writing there are Glover Davis, Rick Demarinis, Minas Savvas and others. Davis, a friend of the Fresno writing scene (cf. the anthology, At the Santa Fe Depot) has published variously, his best known work being Bandaging Bread (Cummington Press). In his intensely personalist poetry, Davis evokes the charged possibilities of ordinary life:

He sees himself

in the mirror like

a painting in the mirror,

where his breath glides

across the surface like

a ship across a sea

of glass.

At times, each line of a poem will carry an individual image — the lines amassing details according to a single emotive charge:

The sink

fills up, beer cans line the kitchen

floor, the freezer cuts on and off

and outside Pollard on his

scaffolding knocks together

beams to take and brace his low

grade lumber.

Best known as a writer of fiction, Rick Demarinis has also published poetry which, like Davis’ takes its departure from intense personal experience (cf. Poems published by Transparent Communications). Minas Savvas is known for his translations of contemporary Greek poets. John Linthicum, a poet who has spent much of his time in Europe (particularly in Mallorca where he worked with Robert Graves) writes poetry of a mythic, romantic nature (cf. Wrestling With the Angel, published by Maya Press).

Other poets on the State faculty include Fred Moramarco, Jim Rother and Harry Stiehl. The latter’s publications through Sea Vineyard Editions are beautifully illustrated works, often on historical materials which in some cases probe the deeper resources of the San Diego area (cf. The Marine Graveyard On Point Loma).

State University maintains a full poetry reading schedule with visits in the past by such names as Ed Dorn, David Bromige, Ai, Diane Di Prima, John Ashbery, Ron Loewinsohn and others. This semester, the readings include: Robert Mezey (Feb. 19), Adrienne Rich (Mar. 11), Sherril Jaffe (April 2), W. D. Snodgrass (April 15), and Robert Creeley (April 22). The readings are free and are held at night in the Aztec Center.

Emanating from State’s Creative Writing Department are several magazines, most notably Samovar which is edited by Rhonda Johnson and Pat Braus. Formed in response (or reaction) to Samovar is Cafeteria, edited by Lloyd Norwood. This journal was formed by San Diego State poets disgruntled with Samovar editorial policies in the past, and their sessions in the school cafeteria (hence the title) led to the magazine which prints many local poets and includes original graphic work. Information about Samovar can be obtained by writing the editors, c/o the Creative Writing Department; Samovar can be reached c/o Box 16191, San Diego 92116.

Lloyd Norwood, a poet in his own right, teaches at Grossmont where a small nucleus of courses in writing are offered as well as an extensive poetry reading schedule. Through Norwood’s efforts, poets such as Michael McClure and Philip Levine have appeared. This semester will see the appearance of W. S. Merwin (Feb. 18) Carl Rakosi (Mar. 4) and Sherril Jaffe (April 1).

Another central nexus of creative activity in the area is U.C.S.D. which, although it doesn’t maintain a writing program, has a number of poets on the faculty and boasts a large number of student writers. There is no distinct unity among the poets at U.C.S.D., but the influence of contemporary art in general is reflected in the diversity of backgrounds for each poet. David Antin, for example, teaches in the Visual Arts Department, and his poetry is concerned with a multiplicity of language “events.” The poem becomes a mode of discourse, asking and answering questions about its own limitations. He has a number of books to his credit, including Code of Flag Behavior (Black Sparrow), Meditations (Black Sparrow), Talking (Kulchur), and his forthcoming book. Talking At the Boundaries will be published by New Drections Press.

Perhaps the best known poet on an international scale, Antin brings a full range of concerns with conceptual art, semiotics, systems theory, ethno-poetics, indeterminancy operations and the art of an international avant garde to his work and his courses. His interests in redefining the boundaries of the poem are reflected in students and friends whose work in experimental prose, for example, is beginning to be published. One might investigate the work of Melvin Freilicher, Howard Cohen or the infamous 'Black Tarantula’ (Kathy Acker), all of whose work reflects and extends Antin’s own concerns with eliminating generic distinctions surrounding the “poem.”

Eleanor Antin, whose work in conceptual art and media has been recently reflected in a Museum of Modern Art one-person show, is also a writer. Her monologues and meditations become the vocal parts of extended personal projects centering around kings, ballet dancers and other roles.

Also in the Visual Arts Department, Allen Kaprow’s work in happenings and theater events are well known. Like Antin, his writing seeks to disturb certain boundaries of style. The poem becomes part of a “performance” in which the totality of sound, gesture and image can be experienced.

Poets teaching in the Literature Department include Bram Djkstra, Wai Lim Yip, Donald Wesling, Edwin Fussell and Shirley Williams. The latter’s new book of poems will be published by Wesleyan this year. In addition to the work of such translators and poets, UCSD’s Comparative Literature Department has developed a substantial program in Ethno-poetics and American Indian translation. Recently, Jerome Rothenberg participated in the program. Several of his students - notably Ines Brolaski and Barbara Einzig — have translated and published work which appears in Alcheringa, a magazine of ethno-poetry which Rothenberg co-edits.

UCSD maintains a poetry reading series on Wednesday afternoons in the Student Center Lounge. These informal readings have featured such names as George Oppen, Robert Duncan, Michael Hamburger, Gary Snyder, Dane Wakoski, John Ashbery, Carol Berge and others. For the winter quarter, the list includes: Clayton Eshleman (Feb. 12), Carl Rakosi (Mar. 5), Adrienne Rich (Mar. 10). Each reading is taped and the tapes are available for listening through the Archive for New Poetry in the Central Library.

The above mentioned Archive serves as a focus for poetry activities on campus and in the community. Begun almost ten years ago by Roy Harvey Pearce, the Archive has collected virtually every piece of published poetry and issue of small magazine since World War II. In addition to its fine collection of monographs and serials, the Archive has several smaller archives and collections including the Paul Blackburn Collection which houses the poet’s manuscripts, notebooks and letters along with his entire tape collection. This latter consists of over 400 tapes which the poet made during his life, including poetry readings, interviews, letters from travelling poets and his own spontaneous vocal ‘record.’ Paul Blackburn was one of the significant poets of the post-World War II generation and his attention to the recording of his contemporaries is almost unmatched. A full catalogue of poems and poets recorded is being compiled and should be ready by the spring.

In addition to the Blackburn material is a collection of Marianne Moore, Ken Friedman’s “Fluxus” materials and the manuscripts and letters involved in Clayton Eshleman’s translations of Cesar Vallejo’s Poemas Humanos. The Archive is located on the eighth floor of the Central University Library and is open from 10:00 to 5:00 Monday through Friday. The phone is 452-2533.

The San Diego writing scene is not entirely located within the schools. Community writing programs. Black and Chicano studies, Women’s Poetry and little magazines draw lines across a wider range of San Diego culture. One of the more energetic poets in the area is Linda Brown who divides her time between teaching courses at Mesa and at U.C. Extension (courses in women and poetry). Her attentions to area women writers forms another nexus for poetic activity, much of which can be reviewed in Womansoul, an anthology of women poets edited by Marie Inkel. Of her own concerns as a poet. Linda has written:

“My theory is that there is an image pool

that all women at certain levels can tap into

— the individual voice will express the primal

image in her own language but the image will remain..."

Her interest in the “shared imagery” of women’s poetry has found a dialogue through her courses and writing workshops. And the women’s poetry situation in San Diego is becoming much more diversified. A coffee-house called Las Hermanas (4003 Wabash) has become a center for feminist activity in the arts and in the community. A series of readings has begun with a Sunday afternoon reading consisting of Bobbie Bishop. Linda Brown, Bonnie Rittenbach and Joan Hall. These readings will continue with Erika on February 14th at 8:00. The readings are open to women, and further information can be gathered by phoning 280-7510.

Little magazines have always been the focal points for writing activities in any area: San Diego is no exception. The problem here has been that of distribution. Since there is no central bookstore devoted to modem literature, access to small magazines is often difficult. Many of them are passed from editor to friends or sent through the mails without reaching any display in the larger public bookshops (this, largely due to the enormous share in receipts — 40%+ — demanded by such shops as Pickwick and The Unicorn).

In addition to magazines already mentioned, there is Mosaic edited by David Cast (1555 Murray Ave., El Cajon, 92020), Suntemples, edited by Phil Silva (P.O. Box 769, La Jolla) and Lemming, edited by Rex Burwell (3551 42nd St., S.D.). Silva has been extremely active in both graphics work as well as the publication of poetry. His Inca Press has published a large number of local and Los Angeles based poets with a bias toward personalist and, at times, anecdotal poetry. Rex Burwell, in addition to his editorship of Lemming has taught classes through the Adult School and has coordinated readings through the Public Library.

A recent innovation in the publishing field has been Transparent Communications, edited by Michael Holzman. It is designed to be a series of small chapbooks, presenting the work of a single poet each issue. So far, this series includes work by Susanne Hennig, Rick Demarinis, and Michael Holzman. The poems and songs of Arthur Frick, a local musician and conceptual artist, will be featured in the next issue.

Holzman’s plan includes the introduction of each book by a reading by the poet and a reception in which the community can meet the author. These receptions form one of the few areas in which local poets and artists can get together, hence fulfilling the terms of the Press’s name.

The matter of how to obtain publications, both of local poets and of national-international writing, is one of the more crucial problems in San Diego. To my mind, the logical choice for a decent selection of poetry would be the Unicom bookstore on La Jolla Blvd. But it is hopelessly inadequate to the number of publications coming out...even from major publishers. Their inflexible policies regarding the advertising of local poetry events or on the ordering of contemporary magazines and books is distressing, considering its accessability to the beach area and its extensive open hours (9:00 in the morning to 12:00 at night).

More useful in this regard would be The Blue Door at 3823 Fifth Ave., near Robinson and University or, for publications of women’s writing, The Women’s Store at 2965 Beech St. (233-4164), and perhaps the Left Bank in Ocean Beach. Although its specializes in used books, the Bargain Book Store at 1053 8th St. carries a large selection of contemporary authors in its ceiling high shelves. The owner and proprieter, Lafayette Young, has been a friend to writers for many years. Also, Wahrenbrock’s (649 Broadway) carries a few modem poetry titles.

In general, the best selection of contemporary poetry can be found at the U.C. Student Bookstore on Mathews Campus. They are responsive to new orders and to local readings, although their selection of local publications is limited. For anyone who wants to keep completely abreast of happenings in the world of contemporary writing, I would suggest using the services of Jack Shoemaker, c/o Sand Dollar Books at 650 Colusa St., Berkeley 94707. Shoemaker sends out a “new titles” sheet and deals almost entirely with mail order business. He is in contact with the poets themselves and knows about even the smallest publication. Another mail-order address would be Peter Howard at Serendipity Books, 1790 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley 94709. Howard, who maintains an extensive selection of current publications, also has a gigantic stock of out of print work ranging back into the Renaissance and continuing up through first editions by modem masters such as Lawrence, H.D., Gertrude Stein and Pound.

There is obviously a great deal left to be said about the writing context here. The work in Chicano and Black communities, the classes held at Adult Education schools, the poetry in the schools program, the various poetry societies and those readings which are held spontaneously in coffee houses and homes are all part of a total fabric that has yet to define itself. Recently, for example, an excellent anthology of poems written by students from Memorial Junior High was printed by Paul Groves and Rod Ash which makes one wonder how many other such projects are occurring in the area.

For the purpose of beginning a dialogue among local poets, this article is only an attempt to draw a few lines. I would appreciate hearing from others who publish magazines or books, who write and are looking for publishers and those who would wish to read their poetry in the various open readings held at State and U.C. during the semester — all this for a follow-up article.

What is obvious is that there is a great deal of work being done, for better or worse, in rather isolated and singular circumstances. The greatest provinciality would be to assume that “what's happening” is happening elsewhere and to perpetuate a myth of “significant” art to the north or east.

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What I enjoyed most attending UCSD was the PLAY AS POEM class, where I reformulated MARAT/SADE and presented it in play form as an Epic Poem with a chorus. It came off darkly comic and left the professor and my fellow classmates speechless. I served as Narrator. My actors included Gordon Hall as Sade, John Rubens as Marat , and Ondi Lingenfelter as Charlotte Corday.

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