As some of you know, I’ve been researching the history of poetry in Los Angeles for the past two months or so. I haven’t done much more than take out a bunch of poetry books and anthologies from the library and do some web research, but in fact there isn’t much critical writing about the “history” of L.A. Poetry available. I did find a very useful dissertation by the poet and anthologist Bill Mohr which covers a large portion of this story, but it’s quite rough at the moment (I don’t know if he’ll publish it as a book, but it needs revision).

One book, Venice West, by John Arthur Maynard, was very useful for the Beat Era. And in general, my project was inspired by a wonderful art book called Catalogue L.A.: The Making of an Art Capital 1955-1985, which is a documentary chronology of the birth of the visual art culture out here.

I was hoping to publish capsule biographies of these poets with this initial post, but I think that’s going to take longer than I thought. Some of these poets, like Thomas McGrath, are better known for their work elsewhere, but McGrath was important for his time as organizer, editor, and general cultural force for the ten years he lived in Los Angeles. Like many poets in L.A. at the time, he was called to testify before HUAC and lost his job as a result.

Nora May French (the link is to a website that has several bios and all of her poems) will be a new name to most of you. She moved here at the age of seven, in 1888, when the population was roughly 50,000 people. As if in anticipation of the transformations the city would undergo when the movie industry took over, French was very beautiful and a little imbalanced, finally killing herself by ingesting cyanide (after, I think, trying to kill an ex-lover of hers).

Indeed, many poets in Los Angeles died prematurely (especially among the group who hung around Wallace Berman in Venice, as documented in the beautiful book Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle), due to heroin, alchohol abuse, suicide and freak accidents. Our most widely-read poet was, of course, a raging alcoholic.

Probably the most famous death of a poet in Los Angeles was that of Bob Flanagan, who suffered from cystic fibrosis, and who documented his long decline (he did, in fact, live much longer than his doctors had predicted) in his book The Pain Journal and in the film SICK: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. It doesn’t appear that he wrote (or at least published) all that many poems, but I’m still looking into this. I’ve found a few chapbooks and anthology appearances. My favorite writing by him is the great collaboration he did with David Trinidad called A Taste of Honey.

Another figure who is not often considered a “poet” but whose work clearly skids over in that direction is the artist Guy de Cointet (born in France). A recent issue of Artforum contained a large tribute to him by artists such as Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, much of which can be read online. Most of his writing was of plays or performances (he might be the most representative figure of experimental theater out here, for all I know), but many of his art books are clearly some form of cryptographic poetry. Here are some of the hand-drawn ones in a seemingly Lettrist tradition; most of what I’ve seen in the library has been typeset. (He kind of reminds me of Gaudier-Brzeska in this photograph.)

This list is primarily geared toward “experimental” poets, but of course, such a category is fluid, and I somehow find poets like Nora May French “experimental” to the degree that no one was probably writing poetry in Los Angeles at the time (and she was so weird). As the list moves toward more contemporary figures, it is spotty, as I’m really concerned with poets of the past. But I’m posting this specifically to get some feedback, especially concerning names that I’ve overlooked and possible places I could go to find information about some of the more elusive ones (such as de Cointet, whose books are incredibly expensive and have never been reprinted).

I have yet to go through back issues of Coastlines, Invisible City, etc., but that is next on my agenda. I haven’t gotten my hands on a few anthologies yet, such as Specimen 73, edited by Paul Vangelisti.

Tacked on to the end of this list is a group of writers and artists who I somehow want to claim as Los Angeles poets, either because they lived here for several years (such as Brecht, who can be seen as a sort of analogue for Duchamp in New York, though Brecht really didn’t like it out here for the most part), use a lot of text in their work (such as Ruscha, Pettibon and Ruppersberg, the latter of whom could almost be called a “conceptual writer,” which is useful since much poetry out here now is “conceptual” in nature), or have collaborated with poets and published their own poems, such as Simone Forti, the legendary choreographer.

David Antin, of course, doesn’t live in Los Angeles, but his wife is often considered part of the continuum of the arts up here (at least in Catalogue L.A.), and I can’t help but think his turn toward conceptual performance was influenced by the L.A. art scene. William Poundstone, a digital artist and writer, is kind of the unifiying figure of all the diverse genres represented here, as his work is as influenced by artists like Ruscha as it is by the Oulipo and concrete poetry (as he states in this interview I did with him several years ago).

(Of course, I’d like to claim Morrissey for this list, but that’s really stretching it. But if any of you know of any other Latin American poets who wrote in Los Angeles, let me know!)

Nora May French (1881-1907)
James Boyer May (1904-1981)
Edwin Rolfe (1909-1954)
Thomas McGrath (1916-1990)
Josephine Ain (1916-2004)
Charles Bukowski (1920-1994)
Henri Coulette (1927-1988)
Bert Meyers (1928-1979)
Robert Crosson (1929-2001)
Stuart Perkoff (1930-1973)
John Thomas (1930-2002)
Jack Hirschman (1933-)
Lewis MacAdams
Leland Hickman (1934-1991)
Guy de Cointet (1934-1983)
Aram Saroyan (1943-)
Paul Vangelisti (1945-)
Wanda Coleman (1946-)
William Poundstone
Will Alexander (1948-)
Douglas Messerli (1946-)
Calvin Bedient
Michelle T. Clinton
Dennis Philips (1951-)
Bob Flanagan (1952-)
Dennis Cooper (1953-)
David Trinidad (1953-)
Harryette Mullen (1953-)
Diane Ward (1956-)
Amy Gerstler (1956-)
Sesshu Foster (1957-)

Figures on the Periphery
Sadakichi Hartmann (1867-1944)
Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962)
Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)
George Open (1908-1984)
Gil Orlovitz (1918-1973)
David Antin (1932-)
Simone Forti (1935-)
Ed Ruscha (1937-)
Allen Ruppersberg (1944-)
Raymond Pettibon (1957-)