- “san diego: i never came i never left."
- (Jeffrey Weinstein)
- ‘‘Wliat he wanted was connected with no particular place: therefore it must be where he was." (William Carlos Williams speaking of Edgar Allen Poe)
Williams’ statement about Poe could easily apply to the poetry of San Diego. Essentially placeless, it tends to focus on subjective experience, whether through psychic autobiography, heroic confession, street journal, or ritual. Some affinity exists between the primary slate of sea-sky-desert and the need to raise some intermediary spirit, whether through identification with Indian history. Eastern mysticism, or some sort of home-fried American Transcendentalism. The poetry of San Diego projects a peculiar form of Romanticism which is able to speak of great (and dead) civilizations like the Mayan or Greek with the same intensity as it speaks of peeling paint or a sunbaked wall or the anxiety of jet lag. Its placelessness, its lack of a strong geo-graphical-historical focus (try to use El Cajon or Temecula in a poem without sounding mildly satiric) results in various j forms of personal statement, at times extended through elaborate metaphor and imagery. At its best, this poetry tries to imagine what it is like to live here, as though living in San Diego would eventually erase the reasons one came in the first place.
This blanket assessment of an area’s poetry does nothing to describe particular developments. There are, thankfully, no distinct “schools" or dominating influences which one could point to as distinctly “San Diegan." as one could in San Francisco or New York. This fact is both an advantage and a limitation, an advantage because the field is clear for experimentation, a limit because it tends to produce provincialism and self-protective poetic warfare. But there are significant areas where poetry is generated. One would have to point to the immense importance of Chicano poetry, based largely in the mixed cultural-linguistic ambience prevalent here and typified by the work of Alurista and Jalio (Alex Kirack). The increasing number of feminist publications, readings, and workshops create another influential context, much of it thanks to the help of the Feminist Poetry and Graphics Workshop, the readings at Las Hermanas, and Linda Brown’s extension courses. Schools and universities help the scene. San Diego State offers a program in creative writing, a weekly reading series, and a number of faculty poets, including Glover Davis. Jerome Rothenberg, Carolyn Forche, John Linthicum, Minas Saavas. and others. UCSD provides a weekly reading series (including quarterly open readings), writing courses, and a number of well-known poets on the faculty: David Antin, Bram Dijkstra, Don Wesling, Wai-Lim Yip, Shirley Williams, and Eleanor Antin. And this is not to mention poetry clubs, adult school courses, community school workshops, cultural centers and the like, which offer the writer an exposure to other poets.
The question in searching out a poetry scene, then, is where to begin, and despite the fragmentation of activities, there is plenty happening. One has to be willing to travel, make a few phone calls, and pay attention to local magazines, newspapers, and and radio stations where poetry readings and events are publicized.
The major source of poetry activity in town must be the various readings held in schools, bars, bookshops, and lofts. The most consistent of these convene at the following locations: The Studio, 424 F Street, organized by Linda Read: Cole’s Bookstore on Prospect in La Jolla, organized by Sarai Austin; Pacifica Books on Mission Boulevard in Pacific Beach; the Feminist Poetry and Graphics Center readings at the San Diego Public Library, Wednesday evenings at 7:00; the Savoir Faire Workshop, 3735 India Street, organized by David Banks (297-8935) and featuring open readings on Sunday nights at 8:00; the Ocean Beach Elementary-Community School, organized by Steve Kowit and held on the third Friday of every month at 7:30; Las Hermanas, 4003 Wabash. These readings are subject to change, and a more complete schedule can be obtained by writing or phoning the specific location.
An extensive reading series is planned at both UCSD and San Diego State this year. The readings at UCSD are held in the Revelle Formal Lounge on Wednesday afternoons at 4:00, and those at State are in the Aztec Center, usually on Tuesday evenings. Information about these readings can be obtained by phoning the Archive for New Poetry (452-2533) and by consulting its quarterly newsletter. For the State readings, one might also phone the Aztec Center information booth. These last two series have been going on for a number of years and have featured such names as Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Jerome Rothenberg, Diane Wakoski, David Henderson, Carl Rakosi, David Bromige, Michael Palmer, Michael McClure, Susan Griffen, Ai, Philip Whalen, Philip Levine, W.D. Snodgrass, Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger, David Antin, Clayton Eshleman, and others.
Local magazines have traditionally maintained the most important dialogue between poets, and San Diego has produced a number of them which continue to flourish: Gordon Preston’s Cafeteria, San Diego State’s Samovar (Patricia Maclnnes, editor), Rex Burwell’s Lemming (now published from Davis), The Greater Golden Hill Poetry Express, edited by Joyce Nower, Mary Montgomery, Vicky Lennen, and Shelly Savren via the Feminist Poetry and Graphics Center; Arthur Frick’s Tugboat (Box 15234, San Diego 92115); Crawl Out Your Window, edited by Paul Dressman, Melvyn Freilicher, and Rex Pickett; Phil Silva’s Sun Temples; Steve Kowit’s O.B. Assemblage, and most recently, The Essence of Dragonwings, edited by Mary Jacob (4909 Cape May, San Diego). One should also note that John Linthicum hosts a Wednesday night “Poetry Hour” over KPBS Radio from 8:00 to 9:00, featuring readings by local poets of their own work and of the classics.
Publishing in the area is minimal in the small poetry field, although three presses have produced books of new poetry. Aeolian Press, a recent cooperative venture, has printed Judith di Gennaro’s Hysterikos and Edwin Fussell’s Your Name Is You. Ken Kuhlken’s Helix Press has published a series of chapbooks, and Milos Sovak’s Ettan Press in Del Mar has recently published a beautiful limited edition of Ines Talamantez’ translations from the American Indian, K’Ehgosone.
Where does one find such publications? The San Diego downtown public library is a pretty good place to begin, especially for local publications. For a complete collection of local, as well as national and international English-language poetry, one should check out the Archive for New Poetry located on the eighth floor of the UCSD Central Library. In addition to a fine collection of books and magazines, it contains a listening area and hundreds of tapes and records of readings held throughout the country. It features the manuscripts and correspondence of a number of poets, including Paul Blackburn, Lew Welch, Clayton Eshleman, Ken Friedman, and Joanne Kyger, along with significant collections of Theodore Roethke, Marianne Moore, Jack Spicer, and D.H. Lawrence. The Archive also prints a newsletter listing poetry events and publications in the area; it can be received by writing the Archive for New Poetry, Special Collections Department, Central University Library, UCSD, La Jolla 92037.
The bookstore situation is somewhat hit-and-miss as far as new poetry is concerned. If you want a really recent title, you had better order it through a dealer, distributor, or the publisher. But there are some bookstores in town which feature such titles in limited amounts. The best all-around selection can be found at the UCSD Student Bookstore on the Matthews Campus. The next best bet would be the Blue Door in Hillcrest-, which has a definite commitment to rare and ephemeral publications, as well as to the local scene. From time to time, the Mithras Book Store on La Jolla Boulevard (next to the Unicorn Theatre) orders new poetry titles, but the coverage is sketchy at best. Pacifica Books in Pacific Beach, the Bargain Book Store on 8th Avenue, and Wahrenbrock’s Book House on Broadway also maintain small poetry selections. But if you want to read new poetry, you should deal with a fine book dealer like Jack Shoemaker (San Dollar Books, 1205 Solano, Albany, Ca. 94706) or Peter Howard (Serendipity Books, 1790 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, Ca.). Shoemaker publishes a monthly list of new titles from which you can select and order. Peter Howard sends out a list and includes a catalogue of rare and out-of-print items as well. The only limitation to ordering through lists is the obvious curtailment of one’s browsing pleasure.
A few further words should be said regarding the Feminist Poetry and Graphics Center, for it serves as a model community-based art center. It is located in the Exploring Family School at 2561 B Street, and its activities include a poetry reading series, Saturday morning poetry writing workshops, a poetry workshop weekend, poetry craft seminars, open readings, and a constant interchange between resident artists and writers. Its annual Women’s Festival of the Arts has been one of the most successful events in town. Joyce Nower is one of the mainstays of the FPGC and has been writing poetry, teaching, and organizating activities for some time. She and Barbara Mor edited one of the earliest anthologies of women’s poetry, Rainbow Snake, which featured local poets and graphic artists. The Great Golden Hill Poetry Express magazine is another offshoot of the Center. This kind of proliferation energies goes a long way towards eliminating the idea of San Diego’s “cultural stagnation.” Similar activities can be found at the Ocean Beach Elementary-Community School, the Chicano Cultural Center in Balboa Park,'and the University of California Extension Center.
No matter how much activity an area might generate, it is always in some ratio to the significant artists who choose to live there. San Diego isn’t exactly a haven for well-known poets, but there are a few whose work is read well beyond the bounds of Southern California. Certainly, one should pay attention to the work of David Antin, whose “talking” pieces and critical writings have virtually re-qualified the idea of poetic “genre” in the last five years. His most recent book is Talking at the Boundaries, published by New Directions. Likewise, Jerome Rothenberg has had immense effect through his work in ethnopoetics and his anthologies of native and modernistic poetry (Shaking the Pumpkin, Technicians of the Sacred, America a Prophecy). His own writing focuses on familial, linguistic, and psychic derivations, particularly through his long work, Poland, and Poems for the Game of Silence (both from New Directions). Somewhat in the same ritualistic-familial order is the work of Carolyn Forche, whose Gathering of the Tribes is this year’s Yale Younger Poet winner.
Three versions of a personalist lyric can be found in the work of Shirley Williams, Pat Trazler, and Glover Davis. Williams’ Peacock Poems (Wesleyan University Press) is written in a blues style, the emphasis directed straight at human relationships and the eldless talk that mediates them. Pat Trailer’s Blood Calendar (Morrow) focuses on a women’s biological-political-existential condition with an absolutely precise eye and ear. And Glover Davis’ Bandaging Bread (Cummington Press) manages to explode the usual contexts of ordinary experience, revealing subterranean psychological disturbances beneath.
Obviously, I am omitting a good deal here, but this catalogue of activities and persons should provide a fair indication of what San Diego offers in the way of poetry. It would be impossible to generalize a shared aesthetic out of all this, except to say that writing here varies between that of the “deep” or psychologically charged image and that of a propositional-formalistic nature. But variations on these two themes are many, and any attempt to unify them results in watered-down generalization. Perhaps the refusal of this “shared” aesthetic will be the vital element in producing San Diego’s literary renaissance.