Thursday, March 11, 2010

This is a time of great reckoning. In the sense that we’re are midway through a period in which many very terrific authors are having collected editions appear. Just in the past few months, we’ve seen Ken Irby’s The Intent On, Gerrit Lansing’s Heavenly Tree, Northern Earth, magnificent editions from North Atlantic Books. Stanford’s four-volume Collected Poems of Larry Eigner is available now. But the volume I want to focus on today is Tiresias: The Collected Poems of Leland Hickman, jointly published by Nightboat Books of Callicoon, NY, and Otis Books/Seismicity Editions in Hickman’s home town of Los Angeles. The book is impeccably edited by Stephen Motika of Poets House, with a preface by Dennis Phillips & an afterword by Bill Mohr.

Leland Hickman might not be familiar to many of the readers of this blog, tho many will have heard of his groundbreaking journal, Temblor, or the journals he worked on before that, Boxcar & Bachy. There were just ten issues of Temblor between 1985 & 1989, but in some important ways the journal changed the world of American poetry. To understand how in retrospect almost requires a thought experiment. One needs to look back at the battles Hickman fought – or at least felt himself fighting – during his days at Bachy & Boxcar. Both were progressive literary journals – LA has always had a scene of poets active in the community but operating quite outside the academy, some portion of which worked at least part time in Hollywood – Lee’s partner, Charles Macaulay, had a career as an actor primarily in television that lasted for over 30 years, culminating with a series of roles in the made-for-TV movies that characterized the final stages of the Perry Mason franchise, led by Lee & Charles’ close friend Raymond Burr. Poets like Charles Bukowski, Wanda Coleman, Harry Northup, Michael Lally, Lewis Mac Adams, Holly Prado, Exene Cervenka, John Doe were just a few of the names that popped up in Bill Mohr’s massive – and still totally valuable – anthology of LA poetry, Poetry Loves Poetry,” published by Momentum Press in 1985, the same year Hickman started Temblor. While there were some of the 60-plus poets in Mohr’s collection who came from elsewhere (Peter Schjeldahl, David Trinidad) or would head elsewhere (Dennis Cooper, Jed Rasula), what was really remarkable about the LA scene of the 1970s & early ‘80s was the degree that it was its own world, impervious to the outside. The closest thing I can compare it to is the Spicer circle in San Francisco in the ‘50s & ‘60s. Lee once told me that publishing anybody who came from north Santa Barbara or east of San Bernadino invariably got him flack. Spicer used to “forbid” contributors to J from sending copies anywhere east of Berkeley.

Temblor’s argument was simple – that the best poetry in the LA scene was comparable to the best poetry anywhere. The proof simply was to put them side by side. The first issue was not atypical: It began with Ken Irby’s “A Set,” which he published in its entirety, turning the 8.5x11 page sideways to accommodate Irby’s long lines. This was followed by some sonnets by John Clarke, poetry by Gustaf Sobin, Anthony Barnett & Charles Stein before Gerald Burns’ “A Book of Spells II,” which Hickman also ran complete, followed with an essay by Burns, “On Being Done.” That was just the first 50 of the issue’s 134 pages. Some of the others included were Clark Coolidge, Fanny Howe, John Taggart, Clayton Eshleman, Paul Buck, Aron Shurin, Lyn Hejinian, Rosmarie Waldrop, Nate Mackey, Jed Rasula, Pietter Guyotat, Jacqueline Risset & Bernard Noël & Gerrit Lansing. To these, Hickman added Angelinos Amy Gerstler, Dennis Phillips, Martha Lifson & John Thomas.

Temblor has often been characterized as language poetry goes to LA, but in fact its perspective was always much wider. The tenth & final issue has work by Ted Pearson, Clark Coolidge, Bob Perelman & Hank Lazer, as well as any number of poets who might be thought of as fellow travelers (Leslie Scalapino, Stephen Ratcliffe, Bev Dahlen, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Aaron Shurin), but surely that’s not how Tom Clark or David Levi Strauss ever thought of themselves, let alone Barbara Guest, Donald Revell, John Taggart, Rochelle Owens, Duncan McNaughton, Fred Wah, Gerald Burns, or Edmond Jabès. And I haven’t listed even half of the writers included in the issue. What Temblor was, rather aggressively, was the one place in the latter half of the 1980s where all modes of post-avant poetics were represented. With Angelinos (Paul Vangelisti, Dennis Phillips, Doug Messerli) just part of the mix.

The one poet who pointedly never appeared in Temblor – I used to rail at him about this – was Lee Hickman himself. Hickman really felt that his role as editor precluded him from doing so as a matter of honor. He also may have felt that he could not get the distance he needed from his own writing in order to be a competent editor of it, as least from this perspective. The result was that Temblor made a difference for just about every poet who appeared in its pages, save for the one who did all the heavy lifting. (In that tenth issue, for example, is some work by Joseph Lease, perhaps the first poetry of his that I’d ever seen.)

Hickman’s own poetry was, as Tiresias makes evident, grounded in a post-Olsonian sense of Projectivism. This is particularly interesting from my vantage point – not only because this is the side of the New American poetry I often feel closest to – since there is no evidence I know of that Hickman himself ever studied with Olson, nor with any of Olson’s direct students, and personal transmission was an important factor in the influence of all the modes of New American poetry. Further, while there several gay men at Black Mountain (Robert Duncan, Michael Rumaker, John Wieners, Jonathan Williams), who could, when called upon, write profoundly of their homosexuality (“Willingly I’ll say there’s been a great marriage”), Hickman’s own work places him much closer to that generation of poets who came of age after the Stonewall riots of 1969, when Lee was already 35. In this sense, Hickman’s perhaps closest as a poet to Aaron Shurin (himself a student of Duncan & of Denise Levertov, tho 20+ years younger) or even David Melnick, writers for whom the gay liberation movement was a profound cleavage in both American & personal history. Yet neither Temblor nor its forerunners was ever Manroot, Paul Mariah’s journal of gay lib poetics (which had an important role in keeping the work of Jack Spicer alive in the decade after his death).

It might be easy, I think, to misread the title piece of Tiresias, Hickman’s long poem that in one form or another makes up sixty percent of his collected works, as Maximus goes to the leather bars, particularly as the one portion that appeared in print in Hickman’s own lifetime was Tiresias I:9:B: Great Slave Lake Suite, a book commonly known by its subtitle, a pun not only on the S&M subculture within the gay community, but the whole idea of “going north.” I say “in one form or another” because it’s evident here that Hickman wrestled with Tiresias pretty much his entire life as a poet, without ever fully settling on the form it was to take. All but the final two passages – presented here as “Unpublished Tiresias” – are labeled as Tiresias I, implying of course II & other numbers. AIDS prevented Hickman from ever getting to these. Plus there is a suite of quasi-Tiresias pieces entitled Elements that convert passages of I:9:B into a suite of “discrete” poems.

Tiresias is, for all these reasons, one of the most interesting / problematic of all the longpoems to come out of the New American (& behind it, the Pound-Williams-Zukofsky) tradition. While the whole problem of completion seems inherent in the form – the only of those generations who got their long work done was Zukofsky, but solely because his wife finished it for him. Tiresias at times feels like the launching pad for a tremendous poem that has yet to be written.