To read Bay Poetics is to once again feel that strange combination of excitement, envy, and caution that may be the condition of the Los Angeles writer. Maybe it’s called ambivalence. Stephanie Young has put together a compelling Bay Area anthology. It’s filled with favorite writers and many new-to-me poets. Youngsters alongside codgers, ellipticists alongside narratologists, dogs alongside cats, et cetera, et cetera. And yet: I already know that the Bay Area has an amazing writer’s culture; it has some of the best reading series in the country, a storied history, Small Press Distribution is based there; from my perch down in Southern California, the Bay Area looks like poet’s paradise; of course it’s going to produce excellent anthologies. It seems so unproblematic. The Southland on the other hand….
Every year, usually around the time of the Festival of Books, the Los Angeles Times publishes an article that attempts to debunk the myth of Los Angeles as an unliterary city. I love myths. They index real-world phenomena. And those perennial articles are a load of crap. Los Angeles isn’t a literary city. Never has been. The Festival of Books is an industry affair, a front for the newspaper book review. We had Zizek at a Santa Monica bookstore and less than twenty people showed up. The guy introducing him didn’t even know how to pronounce his name. I remember going to some of the readings Andrew Maxwell used to put on at Dawson’s Books a few years ago; I was embarrassed at some of the turnouts (as I’m sure Andrew was as well…most of the readings were excellent, and some of the turnouts were great; but you know, how do you apologize to a poet when she's flown in from across the country and only two people show up?)
So Southern California is not really a literary place, but it does have a literary history, and there are a ton of poets here (a few months ago Catherine Daly made a list of Southern California poets on her blog – she has since taken it down – but it numbered over 650). And it’s not as if we don’t have a plethora of reading series and salons and festivals; there’s the Last Sunday of the Month reading series at the Smell, Jen Hofer’s Moving Word film and poetry series, Jane Sprague’s Long Beach Notebook, the High Energy Constructs series, Douglas Messerli’s Green Integer Salons, the yearly experimental writing conferences at the Redcat, the new Middle Monday of the month reading series at the Coffee Fix, Beyond Baroque, the LA Lit podcast…but somehow the Southern California poetry scene does not cohere in the way the Bay Area seems to (maybe the Bay Area just seems coherent from my point-of-view, but I doubt it). (And I see that Bay Poetics was originally meant to be an issue of Jack Kimball's The East Village, following up on the LA/NY issue; of which, the LA section, compared to both the online New York section and the print Bay Area section, is not nearly as expansive and seems somewhat narrow in its selection). Los Angeles is certainly not on the top of the list for traveling readers. “What? So-and-so New York poet is reading in San Francisco? Can’t we get her to come and read in LA?” Well…
Part of the problem may be that Southern Californian poets don’t seem to like publicity, and New York and San Francisco seem to have literary genes built into their DNA; Angelenos live in the shadow of Hollywood; publicity in that context just seems crass, insincere. “After all, we have no coherent literary scene. You have to drive 45 minutes across town just to go to a reading.” There also has never been a really great anthology for the area. (Green Integer recently put out a good anthology, but it was justly criticized for having an average age of 56). And many Los Angeles writers are vehemently anti-provincial; the very mention of a Los Angeles or Southern California anthology makes some shudder. “What would we call it,” said a friend, “Freeway Poetics?” Said another: “I just don’t believe in articulating a poetics based on location, especially this location.” But precisely because a Los Angeles/Southern California poetry anthology would be so problematic may be reason enough to attempt one. I don’t know, maybe not. But I’d like to hear what others think.
Back to Bay Poetics: I love the way it begins, with Brenda Hillman’s brief poem; I love the arrangement, what Stephanie Young calls “the ecology between writers…like overlapping circles with some points and clusters around the edge,” so that Kevin Killian and Dodie Bellamy are right next to each other, and likewise A Tonalists Laura Moriarty and Brent Cunningham (a fie on alphabetization!); and I love reading work by writers like Dan Fisher, whom I’ve long known but never seen in print.
And oh yeah: the Jack Spicer excerpt on the back of the book is a nice touch; it's a relief to turn the book over and see poetry instead of blurbs.