By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
In 1987, Monsour took a class at UCLA Extension with a poet named Timothy Steele, a leading member of a group known as the "New Formalists." Steele, a strict rhyme-and-meter man with a disarmingly gentle manner, soon had the erstwhile free-versers whipped into soldierly shape. Metaphorically speaking, they learned how to polish their shoes, oil their guns, press their trousers and make their beds. Instead of ignoring tradition, they saluted it. Monsour found she enjoyed being in the ranks of the New Formalists and finally began to write the kinds of poems she had always hoped to write. In this, her experience was similar to that of Vikram Seth, the Anglo-Indian novelist who studied informally under Steele when both were graduate students at Stanford in the late 1970s. Seth went on to write The Golden Gate, a best-selling "novel" about San Francisco yuppies, written entirely in rhymed sonnets. (The book is dedicated to Steele.) Seth, who told me that Steele is "one of the great poets in the language," has credited his friend with teaching him to look at poetry "not simply as an indulgence, a ã letting off of passionate steam, but [as] an attempt to crystallize experience, to make from it memorable communication."
IF THE CHOICE IS BETWEEN PASSIONATE STEAM AND crystallized experience, the average L.A. poet is probably more interested in steam. Writing poetry is seen as a therapeutic act, not just by amateurs but sometimes also by professionals. "It's like therapy for me," Eric Priestley said one afternoon as we stood on a rundown stretch of Western Avenue, outside the office where he does his writing. Then, screwing up his face into a parody of Anthony Hopkins' in The Silence of the Lambs, he launched into a hilarious imitation of Hannibal Lecter mocking our earnest belief in the socially redeeming value of "therapy." I took this to mean that, even if he did often write poetry partly for therapeutic reasons -- and what poet doesn't? -- Priestley was well aware that the relief a poet might feel after writing a poem did not guarantee the quality of the final product.
Nonetheless, the idea of poetry as therapy, of poetry as confession, of poetry as an airing of "my" feelings, may well be what attracts most of the small number of readers who are still attracted to it. What many people are looking for is not art so much as authenticity, confession, identity. "Who the hell cares about Anne Sexton's grandmother?" Auden snapped after hearing the American poet read aloud one of her "confessional" poems. The answer, of course, is that lots of people do. Like Sylvia Plath, Sexton is seen as a "feminist" poet, and this easy-to-understand label wins her readers and gives politically minded teachers a platform from which to teach her. Being an unpopular art, poetry is especially vulnerable to politicization, if only because labeling someone a "feminist" poet automatically adds political significance (feminism) to something people secretly believe to have no significance whatsoever: poetry. Ours is a highly utilitarian culture, and poetry is the least utilitarian art form imaginable. Even in the dullest museum, you can at least look for someone to pick up.
Being black, Eric Priestley is automatically labeled an "African-American poet," a label he resents. "Poetry, real poetry, transcends ethnicity," he told me. "It's a universal language like mathematics" -- a remark paradoxically borne out by the fact that translations of poets like Neruda and Rilke and Kahlil Gibran seem to sell far more in the States than those of homegrown poets like Dickinson or Frost. Still, even if he wanted to, it was obvious Priestley couldn't escape the label. Though we started off talking about poetry, within minutes we were talking about race -- a subject that had not come up during my conversations with white poets.
"One of the things you have to realize, man, is that Los Angeles is probably one of the most segregated cities in the world outside South Africa. God, man, it's incredible . . ." Priestley said, and one had only to glance at the dusty, bare-bones neighborhood we were talking in to realize the lived reality behind that observation. Nonetheless, in a poem simply entitled "L.A.," he offered up a wildly juicy hymn to the city in which English and Spanish trade lines:
The last time I saw L.A. she was singing los corridos muy pulcra mas penachos rojos enferno many feathers mezclarando all mixed up in el pelo crooked justice angel hair . . . she was mucha salsa con chile smoking fumas by the minute giving birth to little ashes pimienta pepper sangre blood & dripping jalapeños . . .
Even better, perhaps, was the superb "Nobody Dies," as rousing a poem about the failure to rouse the dead as one can imagine reading:
wake up brother & tell us when you died did your synapses fail to pass acetylcholine to the next nerve juncture on that day hangman's knot crimped your sphincter & turned your bowels to water in the bigots' clay? did they whip your head till it flayed in the maw? was it the wrong place wrong time? did they smoke your hood? were they yoking you to the bone raw? did you take your sappin' good? wake up brother! tell us how you died!
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