- Hold-Outs: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948–1992 by Bill Mohr
Hold-Outs seeks to repair our understanding of what the author terms “the Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance,” a phenomenon which Mohr insists is not only discreet from but also more cohesive than the Beatassociated “San Francisco Renaissance.” Much of his book takes the form of polemic against the hegemonic forces Mohr argues have purposefully ignored this LA renaissance: the academy, a dismissive East Coast literary establishment, and “the Reagan-Bush bureaucracy” (19). The air of rebuke makes Hold-Outs a lively and engaging read. When Mohr dispenses personal anecdotes to illustrate his renaissance, this well-researched text takes on an appealing shaggy-dog quality.
The introduction sketches the US West during the Cold War period as a vaguely defined region in which “the struggle of poets in Los Angeles to define the value of their work” echoed a contemporaneous shift in American literary criticism (xvii). The problem Mohr outlines here and revisits throughout the text is one of diversity and power; through the use of terms such as outlaw and outsider, Mohr designates the poets whose lives, work, and gathering places were [End Page 351] unceasingly ignored and denigrated by a cultural apparatus comprised of the NEA, a warmongering government, and the aforementioned publishing industry. Chapters 1 and 2 focuse on the LA landscape of little magazines, small presses, and intimate communities at the time of the publication of Donald Allen’s game-changing 1960 anthology New American Poetry. These cultural entities take center stage in the book’s second chapter, which chronicles several journals—Trace, California Quarterly, Variegation, Recurrence, Coastlines—alongside a discussion of the complexities underlying the poetry scene popularly imagined as Beats-versus-academics in Lawrence Lipton’s The Holy Barbarians (1959). Chapter 3 tells the story of the Venice West poetry community, with close attention to the careers of Stuart Z. Perkoff and John Thomas, and chapter 4 is a history of the Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center, founded in Venice in 1968 by George Drury Smith, who claimed that the center’s name came to him in a dream (91).
Here Mohr dispenses with his scholarly remove and transforms the book into something close to memoir, reminiscing over the years he spent as editor of Momentum Press. The insights become intimate—“I rode my old motorcycle over to Culver City and ran my hand over the huge uncut sheets, each containing eight pages of text. The paper felt more like cloth that had just been ironed”—without obscuring Mohr’s intent to historicize the literary scene of which he was a part (106). Chapter 5 intervenes with the established poetic narrative of Beats-into-Stand Up, a story that cannot be told without some mention of Charles Bukowski, that influential granddaddy of Southern California poetry, whom Mohr handles justly and briefly.
Beyond Baroque has since 1979 been housed in a structure that dates to a prelapsarian Venice, free of the fetters of Hollywood and LA burghers: the original Venice City Hall, an office relocated when the city was annexed by Los Angeles in 1927. Mohr not only encourages an alternate understanding of Los Angeles as a citizen-defined near order (a term he borrows from Henri Lefebvre) but also provides an alternative history. Hold-Outs is an act of naming—of recognizing the unsung work of typists, administrators, and unpublished poets who labored to make Los Angeles a site of poetic revelation.
Throughout, the author, a professor of English at California State University, Long Beach, is at his best when he puts on his boxing gloves:
One cannot simply discard the heroic labor of hundreds of people, and then pretend that such cavalier privileging of the academy is not being done out of anything other than deliberate, egregious suppression of facts or flagrant incompetence. … Naïve as it might seem in retrospect, we truly hoped that people would read more and more creative work, and that this work would be published by small presses and sold...