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Wednesday
Mar282012

The publisher & Bill Mohr (part two)--"let's not deceive ourselves about the lack of engaged literacy in this country."

Bill Mohr reading at Beyond Baroque, 2009.

It sounds rather schizophrenic, your career from the theatre to bookstore clerk to editor to poet to publisher? And it couldn't be all that lucrative...

Obviously, I would have had a more prosperous life in a material sense had I an ear for popular music or enough hand-eye coordination to be a painter or foot-ear synchronization to be a choreographer. Almost any cultural activity is more remunerative than poetry, but that's partially because the cultural critique of poetry takes itself more seriously and is less able to be assimilated.

In some ways, it's not a surprise that I eventually turned from acting to editing. A good editor is an actor or actress, and if you've studied method acting, all the better. There's always a sense of displacement in that approach, a kind of substitution that betokens metaphorical engagement. An actor imagines himself as someone else. I have the ability to imagine myself as the writer who is working on a poem and to ask the qustions the writer needs to ask in order to revise.

You were poetry editor at Bachy for only two issues, right?

It didn't take long for me to realize that I wanted to do a magazine in which I had total control, so I started Momentum magazine in 1974 and then started publishing books in 1975. One of the reasons I wrote HOLDOUTS was to provide at least a brief account of my life as an editor and publisher.

I was lucky. There were a number of older poets who needed someone to give their writing a visible and audible continuity with other poets in Los Angeles. I needed that kind of luck, since I didn't have much else in the way of resources. As I point out in HOLDOUTS though, I was hardly doing this alone. Paul Vangelisti and John McBride had already set the pace with Invisible City for several years.

Resources, the scourge of almost every literary undertaking?

I certainly didn't run it as a business, which is what John Martin did and I admire him for it. I wonder now, though, what a person who was a manager at an office furniture store would do if he or she wanted to start a literary publishing business: would the skills that Martin had be enough to enable him to make a success of Black Sparrow if he had started late in the first decade of the 21st century instead of in the 1960s? I have no sense, for instance, of how Red Hen Press in Pasadena makes money and survives, but it seems to keep going. Red Hen started before the bookstores imploded and perhaps they'll be able to survive the Great Depression of literacy. It's not like all bookstores have completely disappeared, but the situation reminds me of a line in Ed Dorn's Recollections of the Gran Apacheria: "We do not yet know/what a crisis is." Any poet who doesn't think the disappearance of bookstores isn't a crisis and that the web can substitute for that physical space is in a huge waterfall down the river of self-denial.

You've been writing poems for over 40 years. What keeps you at it?

I was born in 1947, and for some reason dozens of poets were also born around the same time. The size of my "generation"of poets--the Vietnam War generation--is exceptional. There are probably about four dozen American poets born from 1946 to 1948 who are prominent in the 'field' of poetry right now, and then there are probably two to three dozen others such as myself who are what I call "the undergrowth'--poets who are invisible to awards committees. Some of my persistence is simply an inspired response to the rhizomatic density of the field--poets born between 1946 and 1948, a list that ranges from Rae Armantrout to Ron Silliman, from Paul Auster to Jorie Graham, AI to Wanda Coleman...you see the plentitude. One of my favorite poets, Paul Vangelisti, was born in 1945, so he's right on the cusp of all this.

When you have that many people who make a lifetime commitment to an art form, then something must be happening in the use of language itself that requires poetry to respond to it as a crisis in the imagination. In particular, I'm thinking of Ginsberg's lines in "Wichita Vortex Sutra." I'm not saying that even a majority of the poets I'v cited view it this way, but I've been very fortunate to find enough poets asking complex questions about poetry as cultural work to enable me to keep going.

For some of the poets, including myself, the crisis is political. What is imagination in an era in which weapons are being constantly manufactured and refined that have the sole purpose of killing massive numbers of women and children within a three-minute timespan? The election of two presidents from the Democratic Party in recent decades has obfuscated the presence of these weapons in our arsenal. My poetry is an attempt to keep some level of sanity in my day-to day like in a society that wants to pretend that the possession of these weapons is a normal state of affairs.

You see a link between the awareness required to write a write a poem and the act of political engagement?

Let's not deceive ourselves about the lack of engaged literacy in this country. You can't have a country deploying ten aircraft carriers around the planet and simultaneously produce a literate population. Do you know where your aircraft carriers are? Of course you don't. That's a matter of national security. What exactly is being secured, howver? Not your community's level of literacy, that for damn sure. Rather, the international flow of capital, which is equally opaque to the average working person, is what those aircraft carriers monitor and enforce.

Yet you came out of a childhood that you've described as a "navy brat" scenario. How did you avoid that enculturation?

I didn't. The demands I make on myself as a poet are very regimented. In the culture wars, I was a foot soldier who worked his way up the ranks. A non-commissioned officer, so to speak.

How has being an academic affected your life?

That's perhaps the most complicated question so far. It's odd to have a professional life. It's certainly had an impact on the company I prefer. I'd rather go to a PAMLA or the ALA that attend a poetry reading at CSULB. Even though I work as a professor of literature at a four-year college, you have to understand that I don't think of myself as an academic poet.

One can be an academic without being an academic poet. My colleagues, on the other hand, are primarily academic poets. Patty Seyburn and Charles Webb have their books published by university presses. I don't see my poems as ever being comfortable in a backlist of a university press. My own problem is that the underground and/or the experimental don't accept me either. My situation is much like Frank O'Hara's in "A True Account..." My poetry seems too " accessible" for those who favor an avant-garde poetics and too "difficult" for those who prefer a pre-digested menu.

(Next Installment--Part Three: what is a poem?)

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