Life of Crime (Poltroon Press)
I was in Junior High, or what the Torrance Unified School District called Middle School.
Tricky Dick was coming to LA (I believe this was ’69). Big demonstration. I told my parents I would be spending the day at the beach. We hooked a ride with somebody’s older brother. He and his girlfriend tried to be protective (“stay away from the cops, and RUN…”), but they kept giggling. Stoned, I guess.
We parked, walked, sat on the grass in Exposition Park and read the dirty parts of the LA Free Press. Talking to the (mostly older) demonstrators, I felt like a rube from the suburbs. They were smart, combative, full of juice. Probably full of shit, too, but that’s part of being young. They cared about stuff.
Things got pretty rough. People were being beaten. It was routine by then—a year after ’68
I remember thinking that the cops looked bored. In my imagination I recall hearing the sticks make contact with skulls, but maybe not….as ordered, we stayed outside the hot spots. The older kids (especially the girls) watched out for us, and we loved the attention.
I remember hiding my face when a TV camera looked my way. My parents watched the news every night—would be hard to explain.
Later that summer, on the beach in Redondo, I remember feeling (first time?) the bland isolation of the suburbs, and also feeling that things were passing me by. Our older brothers and sisters were on the front lines, and I (we) would never know that kind of excitement. It’s a kind of Mister Roberts feeling—the war was somewhere else. I’m not quite the Ensign Pulver type—or maybe I am and I haven’t reached that boiling point, or I did once and nobody noticed.
Have been reading Life of Crime, the collected newsletters from the Black Bart Society, pub. 80’s, having that feeling. At the time I was living in Santa Cruz, working at Logo’s Books, splendid isolation. I was pretty avidly reading stuff from both sides. Was drawn by personal taste to the Darrell Gray side of things. Used books would come into Logos—things from Toothpaste press, or copies of L=, and I’d read them both together, sort of weighing both sides. Not that my opinion counted—I wasn’t part of either coterie, didn’t publish (except a few poems in issues of Atticus out of San Diego). It just seemed important do know about it all. Such different approaches to poetry! You had to be one or the other. I went for the other. They seemed tougher, scruffier. And I had political reasons. Everybody with half a brain saw the rise of the right—this was when R-ism was taking hold. And all these people with lefty histories (editing socialist rags, etc), who could have formed an alternative voice in the arts, chose to retreat into Theory. I saw that as an act of cowardice—but I was young, naïve. They were just trying to take care of themselves, as people will do. Not that everybody had to write agitprop—I’ve never believed that—but some sort of resistance seemed called for—something beyond “the subject is language”. The Life of Crime people weren’t exactly overtly political, but there was an attitude that said, “Fuck this”—something that I related to Punk, Anarchy, things that I identified with.
The times just called for a “no-holds-barred” attitude. So many poets/artists wimped out. We know how the academy will set down that period. Profs won’t be assigning Paradise Resisted, even though it nailed the times as well as any book out of that period. Perhaps some of the New Narrative books will get some attention—they were probably the best pure writers—but I wouldn’t bet on it. I think of the eighties as one of those periods in US history when we lost a chunk or our collective soul—a few poets saw this and tried to grapple with it. Sadly, some of the best minds of that generation read postmodern philosophy, in translation, and will be assigning that junk until retirement. The war's lost, or it's someplace else.
If you’ve been a nihilist, and you’ve survived, you’re going to have to suffer some embarrassment.
God, the things I did/said at Punk shows, readings and in my own mags. Sour grapes, revenge, hurt feelings, spur-of-the-moment bad taste…
Mostly LOC’s pretty Don Rickles, no way you’d take it seriously, and the social context that I’m trying to get a handle on is subtext. There, though. Current poetry wars are missing that—hard to tell the flarfers from the slowpos without a program, and despite Dale Smith’s attempts to make it real, they’re mostly arguing over style. I long for a little more pettiness, mixed with delusions of grandeur. It’s war! Not a debating class.
As I read LOC I either think, Glad I didn’t say that! Or (sometimes of the same piece) Wish I’d said that! Just letting go and saying anything—a great feeling, at the time. Sometimes it makes for great art. There are few pieces in LOC that transcend the times. The Lives of the Poets entries are crack-up funny, there’s a piece by Nanos Valaoritis that is quite beautiful—and lots of funny stuff by Codrescu and Keith Abbot. A Bob Kaufman poem, and a great poem by Gray. A little digression: When, Oh When, will somebody publish a Darrell Gray collected? So much of his work is hard to find. HE IS AN IMOPRTANT POET!
Day six with LOC on my desk and I can’t stop reading, dipping in and out. I’m a poet, and poets love this shit. I think all this conflict is reassuring in a way—proof that somebody gives a shit. Because, if you give your life to poetry (a form of religious fanaticism) few people outside the subculture are going to care. Your’e in a lonely place. If somebody attacks your work you can assume they’ve read (at least some of) it. Might be fun, to be attacked by the likes of Tom Clark or Alastair Johnston. At times, reading LOC, I feel a little jealous. I published a couple of mags, and tried to be scurrilous, but nobody’s ever written “your magazine is an hysterical mishmash of pointlessness.” What’s Pat Nolan got that I don’t have?