Los Angeles Poetry I
(Villiers Publications Ltd., London: 1958)
Edited by James Boyer May, Thomas McGrath and Peter Yates.

This is the representative collection by what I loosely call the HUAC generation — both McGrath and Edwin Rolfe (who doesn’t appear here) were either fired or blacklisted due to their political views, and others in the collection were affected by McCarthy-era madness. An interesting study and anthology of this group of poets (though not including the avant-garde or non-political ones) is Poets of the Non-Existent City: Los Angeles in the McCarthy Era, by Estelle Gershgoren Novak.

Included in this collection is a weird, Joycean poem by the eccentric Philadelphia writer Gil Orlovitz (who frequented Hollywood as an a screenwriter; CA Conrad is a big fan, and you can read about him on Conrad’s blog), poems by surreal, experimental photographer Edmund Teske, a large slab of McGrath’s Letter to an Imaginary Friend devoted to the pleasures of sex, early work by the well-known poet and teacher Ann Stanford, and spare, compelling work by Josephine Ain, who doesn’t seem to have written much but whose name appears frequently in the literature on the period.

Other poets include: Melissa Blake, Guy Daniels, Gene Frumkin, Sid Gershgoren, Stanley Kiesel, Bert Meyers, William Pillin, Lawrence P. Spingam, Zack Walsh, Mel Weisburd, Peter Yates, Curtis Zahn — I don’t know much about these poets except that Bert Meyers has a collected poems titled In a Dybbuk’s Raincoat.

This anthology is a testament to the impact of the Thomas McGrath, who lived here for ten years, on the Los Angeles poetry world, since nothing of comparable scope was published for a few decades.


James Boyer May, Selected Poems 1950-1955
(Inferno Press: San Francisco, 1955)

I’m quite mystified by James Boyer May. He’s best known as the editor of Trace, a small press journal that reviewed and charted the progress of small press journals worldwide. A chapter of the book Mavericks: Nine Independent Publishers is devoted to him (along with the likes of James McLaughlin and John Martin), though I haven’t read it yet.

The idiom in these poems is unlike anything I’ve come across in American poetry, though it does have a strange resemblance to certain British poets such as those associated with “Cambridge” writing — a high tone that is open to vulgarities, a careful, tradition-wary metrical precision, a moral earnestness, a syntactic and lexicographical density, even a tendency toward Hopkins-esque word-clusters — though May was born and raised in Los Angeles. “Incredibly, ideals of bomb-feared noons — / here, violent blooms should scintillate, / men supplicate annihilative plans.” (from “Ossia”).

May, due to his connection with Villiers (see above), helped Ginsberg publish the first edition of Howl in the UK, which in turn led to the books being confiscated in mail on the way back.


John Thomas, Epopoeia and The Decay of Satire
(The Red Hill Press: Los Angeles & Fairfax, 1976)

Now here’s a difficult case: an undeniably excellent poet who died in prison, serving a sentence for having molested his daughter; a poet whose early work seems to show a visionary breadth and bounding imagination, but who barely published any new poems (or republished, times over, older poems) during the latter part of his life; and a poet Charles Bukowski called “the best unread poet in America” whose style synthesized elements of the most opaque of Olson’s Maximus poems or the collage aesthetic of the Tennis Court Oath (but who was also, at times, sexually frank, morally unambiguous in his amorality, and could tell a good story, like a West Venice West Georges Battaille).

Outside of this small group (most of which also appear in his first collection, called John Thomas), Thomas published a chapbook of poems called Nevertheless in 1990, and contributed to the excellent volume Abandoned Latitudes (with Paul Vangelisti and Robert Crosson) in 1983. A good, if not probing, obituary was published in the UK Independent; a much more detailed, and harrowing, account of his personality by his daughter, Gabrielle Idlet, appeared a little later in the LA Weekly.


Michelle T. Clinton, High Blood /Pressure
(West End Press: Los Angeles, 1986)

I don’t know much about Michelle T. Clinton — there’s almost nothing on the internet about her — except that she doesn’t live in Los Angeles anymore, and that she has a second volume of poetry, Good Sense & The Faithless, also from West End Press (1994). She’s also recorded a spoken word cassette called “Black Angeles” (1988) with Wanda Coleman, who writes that Clinton’s poems are “exorcisms — the rootings out of racism and sexism.”

I thought of her as a sort of female Etheridge Knight at first, as some of the poems reminded me of Knight’s “Hard Rock Returns To Prison From The Hospital For The Criminal Insane,” with its anecdotal focus on the most hidden parts of society, occasional use of Black English, and somewhat nihilistic underlying philosophy. But Clinton’s poetry is far more interesting — less “literary” (following through on that distrust of the “literary” that runs through much of Los Angeles poetry) though formally quite precise and refined. These poems, unsettling as they can be (and funny also) are packed with an amazing energy, frankness and skill, not to mention searing anger.


Bob Flanagan and David Trinidad, A Taste of Honey
(Cold Calm Press: Los Angeles, 1990)

Bob Flanagan is best known as a performance artist, cystic fibrosis sufferer, and subject of the documentary Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (view his Super Cystic Fibrosis Song for a taste of that). David Trinidad is best known as David Trinidad, well-known New York poet. But in their younger years they were hanging out at Beyond Baroque with Dennis Cooper, Amy Gerstler and the teenaged Kim Rosenfield and publishing with Cooper’s press Little Caesar (follow the link for full issues).

This is a really enjoyable little volume — 12 poems of 36 lines each, and in iambic pentameter! It has some of the crazed feel of the Berrigan/Padgett collaborations but with a distinctly LA setting. The formal constraint gets you trying to read the poems as monologues (in the manner of, say, Browning), and brings them to a level that Flanagan, in his short, difficult life, was able to achieve in his solo poems (but more on that later).

The cover image, a combined portrait of the two authors, looks a little to me like David Carradine.