Monday, January 24, 2005

Collage by Helen Adam


When my roommate Stan Klein first introduced me to Abigail Child, circa 1976, she was exploring the forms of poetry & dance because at that moment she was short of cash, a consequence of having invested a lot in a film that returned very little, & these were the two art forms she saw one could address without a lot of upfront capital. As it turned out, Child quickly emerged as a poet of lasting importance & has maintained her dual artistic identity ever since.


In the industry in which I work, this idea that pen & paper is all one needs to set forth on a career in poetry is what we would call a “low barrier to entry.” No need for heavy equipment, whether that of a film-maker, musician, sculptor or many another art form. No need, for that matter, for any formal training. Putting words to paper is physically easier than coaxing a tone out of an $800 saxophone. Putting which words to paper – now, there’s the rub.


But I would expect that a lot – most? – people who’ve gone into poetry over the years, certainly over the last six decades in the United States, have done so without a sense of it being that difficult to tackle. The difficulty emerges more gradually, once you begin to understand what you’re doing. If anything, it’s the art form that becomes harder the more you know. That’s its dynamic – it’s not personal.


That ease of entrance is, I think, partly the reason why poets have so often been game to take on other art forms as well. And the positive experience of beginning to write might even encourage poets to be more interested in more art forms than are their peers in other media. It’s rare to find a poet who can’t talk intelligently about the visual arts, cinema or music. It’s a lot more rare to find someone in those disciplines who can do the same for poetry.


That, anyway, is what I was thinking as I wandered through the extraordinary exhibit that is Poetry and Its Arts: Bay Area Interactions, 1954-2004 presented by the San Francisco Poetry Center at the California Historical Society on Mission Street in San Francisco. Curated, I take it, by Steve Dickison, we find Kenneth Patchen right at the beginning of this chronology, poet, painter & one of the first true vispos in North America. Right there with him is Kenneth Rexroth, with a couple of cloudy, rather beautiful paintings. Tho it is Rexroth & the conjunction of poetry & jazz that is more often remembered today.


With over 150 works by some 80 poets & artists, this exhibition is a fabulous time capsule. It stretches far back as Patchen & the founding of the Poetry Center out at San Francisco State & as far into the future as Eileen Tabios’s extraordinary “Poems From / Form the Six Directions,” incorporating not only a wedding dress & post-it notes (plus real live cash including a $20 bill amazingly still pinned to it) but also paintings by V.C. Igarta. The show is a celebration / documentation of most of the ways in which poets & other artists in the Bay Area have approached one another, whether through the practice of other forms by poets (Ferlinghetti’s paintings, Ginsberg’s photography, Whalen’s calligraphy, some extraordinary “films” by Lyn Hejinian composed in film-film-sized squares one per day, one having been drawn or painted, another written & collaged), or by work of visual artists who associated themselves with poets (Fran Herndon, Tom Field, Harry Redl, George Herms, Philip Guston).


Perhaps it was in the nature of the San Francisco Renaissance, perhaps it was just in the nature of the 1950s avant-garde, but there is a cross-fertilization of poetry, painting, collage, photography, sculpture & music that has set a tone going forward in San Francisco to this day of poets engaged in other art forms & artists from other genre actively engaging poets. This exhibit, which will miraculously be up for almost three more months, is the best presentation of this phenomenon I’ve ever seen. It’s almost too good to be imagined. A number of the works here – such as Patchen’s painting, Jonathan Williams’ photo of Rexroth, Phil Whalen’s calligraphic poem, “Dear Mr President, / Love & Poetry / Win – Forever,” Mary Oppen’s torn paper collage portrait of her husband George, Bobbie Louise Hawkins’ treated Xerox print of Joanne Kyger, R.J. Kitaj’s mixed media portrait of Robert Duncan¹ – are all by now canonic images in recent literary-art history. Many of its best pieces, tho, will be ones entirely new to most viewers – Norma Cole’s extraordinary hanging display of lines at the gallery entrance – not to be confused with Norma Cole the living installation piece even before you get to the ticket desk, surrounded by a hypothetical version of a poet’s room. Some of my favorites in this regard were photographs – a photo of Duncan, Spicer, Ida Hodes & Ruth Diamant-Witt at the Poetry Center, circa 1954, some really extraordinary photo sequences by photography critic David Levi-Strauss, one of Robert Duncan’s blackboards at New College, another of Larry Eigner’s study in his first board-and-care home in Berkeley’s North Campus neighborhood. A small pastel painting by Jack Spicer borrows its reds heavily from the palette of then-UC Berkeley art professor Hans Hoffman.


One can see – almost palpably feel – the impact of certain art movements as they wash over the Bay Area poets. West Coast abstraction was quickly followed by figuration (in advance of pop in NYC, in fact), plus the collage & art-povre strategies of Jess, Wallace Berman & Bruce Conner show up again & again echoes in the visual works by different poets (paintings by some, while others, like Blaser or Helen Adam opted for collage). I only have two or three complaints about the entire show – one is that its take on the visual arts is so heavily weighted toward the 1950s. More recent artists who have involved themselves in the poetry scene – Nayland Blake, Doug Hall, John Woodall, Jill Scott – are all absent. So are a few poets who seem to be “obvious” candidates for inclusion: Jim Rosenberg (whose work seems to directly anticipate Cole’s), Charles Hine, Steve Benson, Abby Child, Joanna McClure, Steve Vincent’s work in the book arts. And it would have been great to have found a way to incorporate the collaborations and influences between music & poetry in more than just photographs from the 1950s & a few record covers from Dickison’s own collection: everything from McClure’s influence of Jim Morrison (& vice versa), Robert Hunter’s work stretching from the Grateful Dead to readings with the likes of Michael Palmer, Leslie Scalapino & yours truly, the work of the Rova Saxophone Quartet, Romeo Void or the impact of Lew Welch on his stepson, Huey Lewis, all would have been fair game for this gathering. But these are really just quibbles – the few final missing threads between a great show and a perfect one.


This isn’t a huge exhibition, for all of its riches – one big room and two smaller galleries – but it may well be worth the cost of a plane ticket to San Francisco to come see. Hopefully at some point these two organizations will figure out how to put out a catalog documenting what’s here, so that people in Tashkent or Orinda can view it as well.



¹ When I was a student at UC Berkeley in 1970, I rented a print of this from the UC Art Museum collection and had it on my wall for the better part of a year. It made my heart leap to see it again “in person.”