July 2013


Here’s the selection of “lost” Los Angeles poets and first paragraphs of the intro that I edited and wrote for Paul Revere’s Horse. Included are poems by the Mexican poet Dantés, Nora May French, Olive Percival, Julia Boynton Green, Virginia Church, Alice Fowlie Whitfield, James Boyer May, Curtis Zahn, the music critic Peter Yates, John Thomas, super-masochist Bob Flanagan and Michélle T. Clinton.

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Poetry in the United States is focused in two major urban centers, New York and San Francisco. While other cities have developed poetry “scenes,” it is these two cities that seem perennially able to renew their poetic identities, with fresh influxes of young writers and a substantial group of older, decidedly “established,” mentors to maintain a sense of continuity with previous generations and their aesthetic strategies. Other cities, such as Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, also have a number of writers with national reputations, and their traditions are old and deep, especially in the case of Boston, but none of them have risen to or maintained the status of a pole of activity, at least since the time of the New Americans, when an axis seemed to develop between New York and San Francisco. Of course, it is impossible to determine the exact parameters of a “major poetry city,” the term itself being inelegant, and writers in these cities (and others, such as Austin, Seattle, Lawrence, or Atlanta) don’t often sense a lack, or if they do, it is a productive one. However, these writers usually recognize that they are not in one of the cities associated with poetry—they identify as underdogs, loyal to their local scenes and perhaps even energized by their marginality.

A city not often counted in any of these rubrics is Los Angeles. One of the largest American cities, once dubbed the “city of the future,” it is legendary for its highways, the movie industry, miles of quasi-suburban “villages,” racial strife and wild economic disparities, and general air of being an outpost on the tail end of the country. It has also managed to nurture and sustain a number of poets who have attained national reputations, but nonetheless the city hasn’t acquired, to most eyes, an identifiable poetic “style” that illustrates to the readers of its poetry what the city means as an intellectual, artistic center, a stark contrast to the various styles of visual art—including the pop-inspired works of Baldessari and Ruscha, the architecture of Richard Neutra, the found art/assemblage aesthetics of Wallace Berman and Edward Kienholz, the performance art of Chris Burden, Paul McCarthy, and Mike Kelley, and the murals of ASCO—that have identified L.A. for decades. There are many reasons for this—there really aren’t many “older poets” active on the scene, for example, and many Los Angeles writers are quite happy to be working without an active local “tradition” anyway—but I won’t go much further on speculating why this is the case.

Lost Poets of Los Angeles

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Following are some paragraphs from an application to do work at the Huntington Library concerning three pre-war Los Angeles poets, Julia Boynton Green, Olive Percival and Nora May French. I’m sure all of you have heard of none of these writers (though if you have, please contact me immediately). More neglectorinos dug up during my research for the historical anthology of Los Angeles Poetry.

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Julia Boynton Green

I came across Green’s poetry while researching another project, a historical anthology of Los Angeles poetry. I call the anthology “historical” because it will also consist of essays describing in some detail the various clusters of poets included. In Green’s case, she is part of an interesting early trio of women poets in early Los Angeles which includes Olive Percival (1869-1945) and Nora May French (1880-1907), both of whose papers are also collected at the Huntington. Unlike Percival or French, however, Green has never had a posthumous publication or reprints of her books, nor has she attracted the attention of scholars. I would also, however, like to look at Percival and French’s papers in case there is material that has been overlooked by past researchers.

Green was born Julia P. Boynton in New York, and spent the first 29 years of her life in New York State and traveling Europe. She published one book of poetry, Lines and Interlines, when she was 26. American Women: Fifteen Hundred Biographies, published sometime in the early 1890s, notes that she married Levi Worthington Green in 1890 and that, after their six months in Europe and a move to Rochester, “her literary work has been seriously disturbed by so many changes and diversions.” She moved to California in 1893, but she didn’t publish her next book of poems, This Enchanted Coast: Verse on California Themes, until 1928 in Los Angeles with the Times-Mirror Press over forty years after the publication of Lines and Interlines. Her final book, Noonmark, appeared in 1936, possibly self-published, out of Redlands.

I don’t have much more information about Green. The books’ acknowledgements pages note that she published in such journals and newspapers as The Boston Transcript, The Forum, The New York Times, American Poetry Magazine, Los Angeles Saturday Night, The Poetry Review (London) among a host of others that I’d never heard of.

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Nora May French

Interestingly, toward her later years she published poems in the science fiction journals Weird Tales and Amazing Stories, largely because, I think, she wrote many satires concerning her dislike of modern life, particularly its machinery, but in the process managed to describe such speculative possibilities as whether someday airplanes, for example, might become sentient: “Will shrewd Invention, further, give the plane / A singing voice unknown to stork or crane?” she writes in “This Thing Incredible.”  “Prodigious Proxies” anticipates some of the concerns of Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick: “Will mutinous machines / Tread beauty, silence, peace, beneath their hooves / And, whether man denounces or approves, / Emerge the brutal end and not the means?”

Green’s poetry from her first book, Lines and Interlines, while very interesting and formally accomplished, was not included by John Hollander for his amazing two volume anthology American 19th Century Poetry (Library of America), most likely because he had simply not come across her work due to her disappearance from the New York scene. This is unfortunate because much her poetry exceeds by far writing by many of the minor, since-forgotten figures he included. She took a very anti-modernist stance in her poetics—one poem, “Locoed,” rails against the arrival of free verse—and so her poetic style never much transcended what she had already developed in her youth; a taste for sonnets, ballads and rhyming couplets persists well into the 20th century. But the range of her concerns was wide; she wrote lovely, never trivial poems about nature, reflections on art and aesthetics, effective poems about love and death, narrative poems and, finally—what I find most original and fascinating about her—several anti-modern satires.

The website Archivegrid notes, tantalizingly, that the Huntington’s collection includes “correspondence, poetry, articles, stories, drama, and three unpublished books” by Green. Of course, I hope those three books are of poetry on a par with what has appeared, but I’d be interested new material of any genre. Consequently, another website lists a series of poems that she published after the appearance of Noonmark, some of which I’ve been able to locate, some not—drafts of these poems would be welcome.

My goal is to assemble a book, if not of a “complete” poems, then of a selection. I’d like to include whatever prose about her literary community, her writing practices and her views on poetry and writing that I can find. Green represents something quite important to Los Angeles poetry; she is the earliest English-language poet I can find, in fact, who has a substantial body of work that rises much above the level of the derivative material by the countless other L.A. poets of the time and could have a national audience. Green is distinctly Californian, if not an Angeleno, in her preference for the quiet pleasures of her garden over what must have seemed the terrible encroachment of technology on everyday life, most interestingly as it descends from the air. Even as I write I hear the sound of a propeller plane overhead, nothing compared to the occasional swarm of helicopters which regularly descend on my Hollywood neighborhood—Green might have been the first to complain of such things in poems! Though she falls somewhat into the tradition of Los Angeles boosterism inaugurated by the newspaperman Charles Lummis to encourage emigration, she is never less than detailed in her attentions to plant and animal life on the “enchanted coast,” and is never governed by anything but her own impulses to create and respond to the world.

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Olive Percival

I’d also like to research the papers of Nora May French, an intense poet who committed suicide at the age of 27. The Outer Gate: The Collected Poems of Nora May French appeared in 2009 from Hippocampus Press, which usually focuses its attention on writers in the H.P. Lovecraft circle. While French didn’t write science fiction or “weird” verse, her circle of writers during the last year of her life in Carmel included George Sterling and a few others who crossed over into the uncanny. French’s poetry is much denser than Green’s, more visionary, and, as her early suicide might suggest, pained and impatient. I don’t think there are any more surviving poems—her mother apparently destroyed all of her lighter, humorous verse because she thought it would hurt French’s reputation as a writer—but I’d love to take a look anyway.

Olive Percival, known largely as a collector, travel writer and designer of fabulous gardens (the Huntington has published a book of her designs) published two books of poems as well as a series of memoirs. One of Percival’s books, Leaf-Shadows and Rose-Drift (1911), anticipates some of the Asian-inspired stylistics of major Imagist poets like Ezra Pound in his book Cathay (1915). I haven’t been able to locate her second book, Yellowing Ivy, published the year after her death in 1945. While my least favorite aspect of her book of Asian-influenced poetry are the rhyme schemes—it’s unfortunate that she didn’t discover or embrace free verse—I’d love to see whether she either moved past her Asian mode, past her devotion to fixed rhyme schemes3, or if not, developed the method of her first book into something more substantial.

I haven’t contacted a press yet about the poems of Green, but I am in discussion with a few presses about the historical anthology itself. Consequently, I’m working on a series of essays for the Los Angeles Review of books on my various “clusters” of L.A. poets which should start appearing over the next year. In 2011, I published a selection of “lost” L.A. Poets in the San Francisco journal Paul Revere’s Horse. It included two poems French, two by Green and three by Percival in that selection—I can give you a copy for your archives if you’d like.

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flyerI was asked by Marissa Lopez, my colleague at UCLA, to write the introduction to a symposium (really just a public chat session with music critic Nikki Darling and Jose Maldonado of the Sweet and Tender Hooligans, a Smiths tribute band) concerning Latinos and Emo, probably because of my love of all things Morrissey. This is it, pretty light stuff and written rather quickly but I hope you like:

Introduction to Lat/emo

May 31, 2013

Over the past three or so years I’ve been researching the LA post punk scene, collecting whatever free music is or was available online, going through the used record bins at Amoeba and Counterpoint and various other places in LA, and making a ton of online purchases at sites like Discogs and Musicstack.

My interest in post punk as a genre of music was spurred by Simon Reynolds Rip It up and Start Again which charted the histories of such bands as Joy Division, Devo, The Associates, Scritti Politti, Pete Ubu and others that formed on the cusp of, or in some cases prior to, the punk music explosion of ’77.

My knowledge of LA music, outside of the mainstream either of the early 70s (Fleetwood Mac, Tom Waits, Jackson Brown, etc.) and of the later hair metal era (Mötley Cru, Guns n Roses, etc.), was mostly confined to some punk and hardcore, and even at that it was quite limited — Black Flag and X might have been the only LA punk bands I could have named when I got here.

Soon I discovered such lost gems as the Screamers, Suburban Lawns, the very obscure Null and Void and the even more obscure Wild Kingdom — whose only recording was published as a flexi disk insert for a music fanzine (Brad Laner has a rip of it on the website for his radio show).

From Pasadena, most of Wild Kingdom was made up of Latinos — you can see them on YouTube from their appearance on Peter Ivers new wave theater (the sound is awful) — but that is only worth noting for the rather elaborate pompadour, leather jacket and suede shoes of their lead guitarist. Wildly experimental, I don’t hear too much Chicano influence in their music; the track, “Roma/Destiny,” starts as ebullient space music with one of the most unusual drum beats I’ve ever heard, to something like carny music, then back to space music again.

[The video below is from their appearance on New Wave Theater with horrible sound. The track “Roma/Destiny,” their only studio recording, is a thousand times more interesting but you get a sense of their appearance and instrumentation here.]

I focused on post punk also because that’s kind of the music of my youth — and not punk, which predates me a bit and besides was a little too aggressive for my sensitive poetic soul in my teen years (I was also an MTV kid, and punk never really broke there). So my goal, really, was to uncover whatever music in LA that matched up with that post punk aesthetic — experimental, sophisticated but still DIY, at once political and concerned with emotions and solitude, and wildly imaginative (costumes, make-up, synths and videos shot in exotic locations — and which didn’t make it across the country to New Jersey.

I was surprised at how many musicians of color — Latino but also a fair amount of Asians (Dianne Chai of the Alley Cats, Susan Rhee of Susan Rhee and the Orientals, a woman who goes by the name of Cyrnai) and even black presence (notably Pat Smear but also a ska band called the Untouchables and, of course, Fish Bone) — were on the scene, if not at the start, then later.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was really in the Latino music (with the exception of Fish Bone) that one heard a real cross cultural mix — not in every song, perhaps, but overtly at moments and maybe as a subtle undercurrent of pining after, or critique of, the American Dream that is buried deep in the mix and the lyrics but which decidedly reflects the attitudes of generations of Latino US culture. Not nihilism but an allusive poetry, not just critique from the outside but politics from within the margins.

East LA had its own club, The Vex (started by Willie Herron of Los Illegals) partly to address the fact that most east LA bands outside of the Plugz and, later, Los Lobos couldn’t get gigs on the Strip. The Vex clubs became a meeting place for the punk bands and the more traditional Mexican music that had a young audience (a good compilation of this music is Los Angelenos – the Eastside Rennaissance, which includes the Plugz, the Brat among other obscure acts).

Probably the Chicana musician most associated with the LA punk scene is Alice Bag, born Alicia Armendariz, front woman of the band the Bags. I haven’t read her autobiography, Violence Girl : East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, A Chicana Punk Story, but reviews show her story to have been, indeed, quite violent and not a little inspirational.

Bag might better remembered as a great charismatic figure in the early days of punk — she did in fact wear bags — though the recordings of the music I’ve heard (mostly live tracks) seem to fit the punk, and not post punk mode I was looking for. She’s featured in Penelope Spheeris documentary about the LA punk scene The Decline of Western Civilization though after the band had broken up — she left music to become an educator.

But I think the most important bands for the purposes of a conference on Latino emo would be the Plugz and the Brat. The Plugz were far more accomplished — their first LP, Electrify Me, which features their punk version of La Bamba (which figured in the Repo Man soundtrack) was full on electric guitar-bass-drum punk. I’ve lost my copy of this LP so couldn’t review it (neither the Plugz nor the Brat feature — surprise! — on Spotify).

Their second, Better Luck, features better production and more accomplished songwriting — Tito Larriva, their lead singer and songwriter, could fit easily among the “angry young man” post punk generation of the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello — as well as the inclusion of horn sections, entire songs in Spanish, complex harmonies, and pastiches of various styles of music such as reggae, a kind of jerky Devo-ish beats, jangly pop and traditional Mexican.

Larriva’s lyrics are poetic, including humorous reflections on So-Cal life in the 70s such as waiting on a gas line — the outro to that tune pleads “Don’t light a match! Don’t light a match! Don’t light a match!” etc. — watching unattainable, if slightly sketchy, girls on a hot day on the street (which he recorded for an important album of spoken word poetry in LA), the tale of an American who “took the bait” (I think a critique of mindless capitalism), and somewhat gruesome evocations of having a brother involved in violent street crime, slot throats and all.

This sort of mix seems not inimical to Morrissey himself, who could often mix politics, ethics, infatuations with the life of crime and erotic longing in a single song. Larriva — who also had a great voice, not the most versatile tool but distinctive, an urban existentialist singing through the clenched teeth of a gangster — went in to form Cruzados, Tito and Tarantula and others and he is also known as an actor in Roberto Rodriguez films and elsewhere. He’s also scored films.

Lesser known is Teresa Covarrubias, lead singer of the Brat (other members included brothers Rudy and Sidney Medina), which only managed to record an EP for Larriva’s own label, Fatima records. Covarrubias is described as being introverted and yet dynamic on stage – one website states: “Covarrubias remembers that sometimes audiences were surprised by her off-beat yet alluring stage presence and didn’t expect much from someone so petite, brown and seemingly timid.”

Covarrubias’ lyrics (I’m assuming she wrote them, I don’t have credits for the LP) could also vear from the political to the personal quite quickly — one song called “The Wolf” has as its refrain “The wolf and the lambs… we are the lambs” and sings of “democracy laced with hypocrisy” while “Attitude” could be a high school anthem — it seems entirely about declarations of personal identity, an emo theme if there ever was one — and “Starry Night” is a love song.

The structures aren’t quite as sophisticated as the Plugz — very much four part punk (one track clocks in at 54 seconds) with some X influence — but are terribly effective, especially due to Covarrubias’s clear but expressive voice rising over the hard electric din (it resembles Belinda Carlyle’s in this way, a little flavorless but, in juxtaposition to the intense lyrics and clanging music, just right), some nice rhythm guitar work and background vocals. It would be truly a loss if they were able to work past this early sound in later years and yet never found a contract.

Los Illegals are also a hugely important East LA band but maybe I don’t see their connection to emo as clearly. Formed as a wing to the art/political collective ASCO, they seem a little less personal, less vulnerable than the Plugz or the Brat. No less imaginative – some of their songs have a sci-fi apocalyptic or noirish intensity — they are never personally introspective, though of course I think introspection of a sort — social introspection based on communal fear and rage? — lies at the heart of their most satiric songs, like The Mall and Guinea Pigs.

Besides, I’ve spoken long enough! I’m eager to learn more about the infamous Latino fanbase for the music of the Smiths and Morrissey — it all makes sense to me now but I confess it was surprising when I first learned of it back in new York!

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