Bill Mohr is a literary activist--poet, publisher, organizer, scholar. While working as a typesetter in Los Angeles, his Momentum Press published dozens of books and chapbooks, primarily featuring the work of west coast poets, from 1974 to 1988. Mohr's own book and audio recordings of his poems include Hidden Proofs, Vehemence, and Bittersweet Kaleidoscope, and his critical and creative work has appeared in many magazines, including the Antioch Review, Chicago Review, and ZYZZYVA. He's currently associate professor in the Department of English at California State University in Long Beach. Mohr's latest book is Holdouts, The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948-1992 (University of Iowa Press.
Mohr's life experience--typesetter, poet, editor and publisher, lit organizer, and his middle-age acquistion of a Ph.D and entry into academia--establish him as a singular figure in the community. He agreed to an interview recently, responding to a series of questions from this publisher:
Your book on the history of poetry communities in Los Angeles, Holdouts, took 15 years to write. What held you up?
Holdouts is a very unusual book as an academic project. It's rare for an academic book in literature to cover more than two decades, and mine covers over four decades. For example, one of the books that inspired my project was Michael Davidson's The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetry at Midcentury and Community. The poems he cites were written largely between 1945 and 1960. Midcentury means a decade and a half, with a brief postscript. In other words, he's mostly looking at the same exact period that delimited Don Allen's The New American Poetry. My book covered well over twice that time span. I have to say that Davidson's book remains the most thoughtful assessment of West Coast writing that anyone will probably ever produce--it's not perfect but it's close enough to call magisterial. But it doesn't particularly make use of archival resources. My book's heartbeat is the archive, which required time and money. I certainly didn't have money! Not after spending my youth trying to operate a poetry publishing venture. Ha! Writing Holdouts was like making an epic documentary film on an Easy Rider budget. It's true I told people I had begun working on the book in 1996, but I never had the time or resources to really make it my main focus. I spent three years taking classes for my Ph.D, grading freshman essays at Rutgers and St. John's University, living in Long Island, New York doing litte else but teaching immigrants how to spell 'above'. Endless drudgery. Eighteen hours of class a week. Twice I appled for an NEH grant but was told that it wasn't an important enough project to qualify. One panelist was, however, optimistic: he said my book would probably be published by a minor academic press. So much for the prognostic expertise of peer panelists.
Fortunately, I managed to find advocates at the right times. Alan Golding and Joe Parsons deserve a lot of credit for this book, just as Michael davidson and Donald Wesling provided me with crucial feedbach when I was writing the first draft as a dissertation.
One of the interesting ways you contextualize the small press movement in the sixties and seventies in Holdouts involves an examination of the changes in theatre's ecology during that period. Care to comment?
I moved to LA when I was 20 years old to finish my upper-division coursework as a theatre major at UCLA. After I graduated in 1970, I went on to act with two different theatre troupes in LA. I must admit I still miss theatre. I was in a production of Marat/Sade, for instance, that was nominated as one of the eight best shows of the year by the LA Times, and I was in a couple of different plays with the Burbage Theatre Ensemble, when it was based in Century City.
How quick was the transition from theatre to poetry?
About four years. At the same time I was doing theatre, I was also working as the poetry editor for Bachy magazine, which was being published by Papa Bach Bookstore, but it was a very gradual shift.
What drove you into poetry?
Compared to most poets my age, I began publishing my poems fairly late. I was in fact working as an editor before I had a single one of my own poems published. I was lucky enough to have wandered into a bookstore in west LA called Papa Bach in the late summer of 1971,and soon struck up long conversations with William Iwamoto, who was working behind the counter at the time and soon after started his own bookstore, Chatterton's.
So you worked as a poetry editor before you published a poem of your own...that's odd?
Well, there was a tiny gap but the case remains that I had more public visibility as an editor than as a poet back in the early 1970's. The first issue of Bachy came out in summer of 1972, when I was 24 years old, and I began accepting poems for that issue in Fall of 1971. I had my own first poems accepted for publication in January, 1972 by a mag in San Diego called Fuse. But I didn't think I was too young to be editing other people's poems. I had an ear for it.
(Next installment--Part Two: no one gets rich on poetry).