Twenty years ago, I had my first poem published. That last word requires a bit of criteria. Once, giving a lecture on poetry publishing to a group of college students, I defined a publisher as "a person who brings your work to strangers." Anyone, I pointed out, can go to FedEx and photocopy a piece for friends and neighbors, but publishers are those special (and, often, idealistic) people who bank outside of an author's inner circle. Maybe the payoff goes as far as a few blog postings and a couple of Amazon reviews with unfamiliar user names. It doesn't matter. The first step is to believe in your own work, and the second is to have it believed in by someone else. There's a reason people print literary magazines in their spare time while barely staying in the black: that sense of shared commitment, that notion that all parties -- writer, publisher, reader -- are accomplices to a piece's birth.
My first poem to have an accomplice was "Elegy for a Rhythm Guitarist," which I wrote as a senior in high school. In 1998, it won second prize at a UCI Bookstore contest, and it appeared the following spring in Faultline, the campus' literary magazine. For a long time, it was my only poem. I performed it, eventually from memory, at one campus reading after another, to the point where, when I finally showed up to an event with a new offering, someone in the audience remarked that he had been expecting to hear "the guitar guy" again. I ultimately spent three years at UCI writing poems that could be charitably described as hit-and-miss; one of my problems was that I had convinced myself that, like Mozart in Amadeus, I was an instinctive genius who could churn everything out in a single draft. In 2002, just before graduating, I had a chapbook called Thief After Dark published by FarStarFire Press, whose publisher, Carole Luther, I had met through the local coffeehouse circuit. It consisted of 24 poems, sported a generic clip-art cover, and had staples in its spine. Still, the day I punched its title into Amazon and saw it come up, I felt almost cowed with wonder.
We grow out of that wide-eyed phase. Before long, I realized that Amazon is not exactly selective, that beginner's luck is not a neverending charm, and that poems, like most things, develop better through patience and nurturing than through bouts of frenetic inspiration. But I have never stopped being grateful for Carole, for FarStarFire, for the bookstore contest judges and for the editors of Faultline. Those early encouragements mean a lot, and the more sober times ahead might be less bearable without them.
And then, once in a while, we get to exult again. Next weekend, on Saturday, Sept. 7, my book Tea and Subtitles: Selected Poems 1999-2019 will launch at the dA Center for the Arts in Pomona. (The reading starts at 5 p.m., admission is free, and the venue is at 252 S. Main St. -- I think that covers all the key points, but please email me if you have any questions.) It will be a wide-eyed launch, which is to say, a tribute. Once I overcame my Mozart mentality years ago, I realized that the truest way to improve my craft was to study that of others. Out went the "brilliant" single drafts and in came a stack of books by other poets, young and old, famous and obscure, whose world views and poetic styles pushed me to keep building my own writer's toolbox. (That term, "writer's toolbox," comes from Stephen King. I have never taught an English class where I didn't cite it at least eight times.) At the dA next weekend, I will be joined by a series of other poets, who will present their work alongside mine in a back-and-forth session. Those are the scripted guests. If even more show up wanting to read, I may have to carve out an open reading list.
There are too many people to thank in this space -- twenty years amasses a lot of gratitude -- but I will give a special shout-out to Eric Morago, the publisher of Moon Tide Press, who made Tea and Subtitles and so many other poetry collections possible over the last three years. Eric, a Moon Tide author himself back in the day, is the kind of person who might give hope to a gawky undergraduate with a poem about a guitar player. In fact, he recently gave hope to a much older poet with a poem about a guitar player. "Elegy," which hasn't seen the light of day in years, appears on pages 32 and 33 of the book.
And so hello again.
Since last July, I have been absent from my blog. Many personal matters have kept me occupied during that time, and they have all been wonderful occurrences. Those who know me personally know the details. Suffice to say that I have had little time to write, and I am glad to have a few minutes to pen another blog post now.
I am also glad to feature next Sunday, April 23, at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. This year, the organizers have put together a terrific poetry lineup, and just scanning their names brings back memories: David St. John, who wrote the foreword for one of Moon Tide Press' books; Christopher Buckley, whose work inspired much of my last collection; Laurel Ann Bogen, whose workshop I took at Beyond Baroque and whose techniques I have passed on to my own students; Elena Karina Byrne, who provided one of the epigraphs in my first book; Mariano Zaro, a wonderful interviewer as well as a poet; and many others. I feel honored to be part of such a remarkable group, and I hope to catch as many of their readings as I can.
As for my own feature: At 2:20 p.m. on the Poetry Stage, I will read from my last two collections, The First Thing Mastered (Tebot Bach, 2013) and Angels in Seven (Moon Tide Press, 2016). These two collections go hand-in-hand, as the former tracks the years of life from infancy to the early 30s, while the latter focuses on the age of 35. The title poem is also about my boyhood fandom of the Angels baseball team (I still bristle at calling them the "Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim"), which makes for perfect timing as the Halos embark on their latest season.
Admission to the festival is free, although there is a charge for parking. Please stop by and say hello!
Speaking of Moon Tide Press, it is now in the capable hands of new publisher Eric Morago, who has honored the press' long history by posting a poem from a Moon Tide book each day of April on Facebook. Eric, whose What We Ache For came out from Moon Tide in 2010, is busy making plans for the press' next phase, and I look forward to taking part in it as a consulting editor. For those looking to follow Moon Tide's latest news, you may check out its revamped website here.
Eight years ago, as an obscure publisher of a small poetry book press, I decided I had nothing to lose by calling the main number of the most lavish performing arts venue in my hometown. The Muckenthaler Cultural Center, which once served as a family's home and perches high on a hill in Fullerton, California, had hosted any number of youth arts endeavors -- painting exhibits, live theater and the like -- when I was in school. Just as Elvis, I suppose, listened to the Louisiana Hayride with wide-eyed yearning as a child, so the Muckenthaler seemed to promise us a shot at glory, or at least high altitude, in those formative years.
When I called the number in 2008, I got a hold of Zoot Velasco, the executive director, who told me he would be at a street fair later that day and invited me to come by. I brought a small stack of books that Moon Tide Press had published and asked if the Muck, as it's known, would be interested in hosting a reading series. Perhaps my pitch was persuasive, or perhaps I just brought the Moon Tide volumes with the most gorgeous covers. Regardless, Zoot agreed to give it a try. Over the next near-decade, the Muck went on to host dozens of poets, many of whom shared the bill with local student musicians. Best of all, approximately half of our authors got to launch their (gorgeous) new books in the Muck's gallery or outdoor patio.
Now, Zoot is stepping down as leader of the Muck -- or, I should say, moving on, as he'll assume a leadership role at the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield. The Orange County Register's Brian Whitehead wrote a fine piece on Zoot today, outlining how the Muck expanded, lured more visitors and even reduced neighborhood noise complaints during his nine-year tenure. None of our poets would have been that loud, of course...but then, acoustics are one of the prime considerations in a poetry reading, and the Muck proved just about unequaled in that regard.
The thing about poetry is that, unlike sports or movies or music, it doesn't often have venues created specifically for its use. If the voices in Field of Dreams had urged Kevin Costner to build a site for poetry instead of baseball, he wouldn't have had to sink thousands of dollars into topsoil and stadium lights; he would have simply cleared a space in his kitchen or the neighborhood community center. Poets, who generally go without dressing rooms, paparazzi and limousines en route to their live gigs, may have to contend with coffeehouses where they struggle to be heard over the blender, libraries where the hard wooden chairs aren't especially comfortable, college lecture halls with drab decor, and the like.
And then there's the art gallery in the Muck, which is large enough to accommodate nearly 100 people but cozy enough not to make low turnouts an embarrassment. The foot-high stage, situated under a fancy white arch, makes a perfect focal spot for performers who, as long as they speak somewhere above a whisper, don't require a microphone to be heard. As one who dislikes shouting his poetry -- at least the non-angry poems -- I found that the confines of the gallery worked wonders in terms of subtlety and pacing. With the paintings on the wall and the piano in the corner, the room feels like it was tailor-made for a visit by Cecilia Woloch or Eric Morago, even if we know that wasn't what the Muckenthaler family had in mind.
On summer nights, we'd often relocate outdoors to the patio or even the amphitheatre, which required more amplification. Still, those shows were some of our best -- particularly the launch party in the amphitheatre for the Pop Art anthology in 2010, when the Troy High School jazz band took the stage between poets.
In the Register piece, Zoot is quoted as saying, "We found a niche that wasn't being served, and we served it. You come to the Muck, you can expect to see something you won't see anywhere else." On behalf of Moon Tide Press and all the poets, Zoot, thanks for making us part of that something.
In 2008, Moon Tide Press started a very rewarding partnership with the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, a gorgeous performing arts venue in Fullerton that ended up hosting the majority of our book launches -- including an outdoor extravaganza for the release of the anthology Pop Art, where poets shared the stage with a local high school jazz band. Zoot Velasco, who is stepping down as director of the Muck this year, was an avid supporter of our press and authors, and we are always happy to make a return trip to the Muck when possible.
So...I am pleased to announce that on Saturday, July 16, I will return to the Muck to teach a two-hour poetry workshop on finding creative inspiration. This interactive workshop, intended for ages 14 and older and all skill levels, will start at 10 a.m. and 12 spaces are available. Admission is $40 and includes a copy of my new book, Angels in Seven, which came out from Moon Tide this month.
For more information, call (714) 738-6595 or visit themuck.org/onedayclasses. I hope to see you there!
One of the joys of being a publisher is watching your authors continue to thrive. In 2012, Moon Tide Press published Irena Praitis' Straws and Shadows, a remarkable thematic collection of poems about life in Lithuania between the world wars. The book had a number of successful readings and got a writeup in Orange Coast Magazine. Now, Irena, who teaches at Cal State Fullerton, is back with a new release: The Last Stone in the Circle, which won Red Mountain Press' 2015 poetry prize competition and will launch at 3 p.m. on June 19 at Teatro Paraguas, 3504 Calle Marie in Santa Fe.
Yes, that's in New Mexico, which is a long drive from Irena's home in Southern California. But I once made that very drive, stopping overnight just once in Arizona, and can vouch that it's a beautiful and thought-provoking drive for artists or poets -- complete with the ranch where D.H. Lawrence once lived. Just make sure to fill up regularly on gas to avoid running on empty in the middle of the desert, as I nearly did at one point.
The Last Stone in the Circle, which Irena crafted from eyewitness accounts, depicts the experience of prisoners in a German work/re-education camp during World War II. One of the most striking things about Straws and Shadows is Irena's eye for detail, particularly in service of preserving the past. The book ends with the lines "I'll be gone soon, too, and only the ghosts / will have tales to tell, but no one to tell them to." We can count ourselves lucky to have Irena's tales again.
Ten years ago this spring, Moon Tide Press released its first book. Lee Mallory, Ricki Mandeville and I had conceived of the press in late 2005 to help provide an audience for local poets, and for our first collection, we opted for an Orange County institution: Michael Ubaldini, a singer, songwriter, poet and film historian. (Well, how many rock lyricists can seamlessly weave Rita Hayworth, Clara Bow and Jean Harlow into a single song?) Ubaldini’s Lost American Nights: Lyrics & Poems launched at the Gypsy Den Café in downtown Santa Ana, and the evening was a win all around: Moon Tide Press officially launched, Ubaldini became a first-time author, and a new generation of Guitar Hero-worshipping kids learned who Rita Hayworth was.
In the eight years that followed, Moon Tide continued to grow—thanks, in no small part, to our partners in the community. Zoot Velasco, the CEO of the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton, invited us to do a regular poetry-and-music series. Dozens of people signed on as patrons, ensuring a solid readership for new titles. And, most importantly, the manuscripts kept on coming. After Lost American Nights, Moon Tide went on to publish four multi-author anthologies as well as solo collections by Lee, Ricki, Mindy Nettifee, Ben Trigg, Kate Buckley, Carine Topal, J.D. Salinger, Eric Morago, Gail Newman, Michael Kramer, Susan Davis, Peggy Dobreer, Irena Praitis, Sharon Venezio, Timothy Matthew Perez, John Brantingham, Ruth Bavetta and Robbi Nester. (OK, no, we didn’t really publish a book by J.D. Salinger. But since it’s common instinct for a reader to skim through a sentence like that one, I wanted to make sure you were paying attention.)
As the saying goes, though, to everything there is a season, and after Robbi’s A Likely Story came out in summer 2014, Moon Tide went on hiatus. The reasons for that were simple and unremarkable: I had started a teaching credential program and couldn’t devote the time to publishing that I once did. This summer, however, the original Moon Tide Press is back for a last hurrah—with the publication of my own third book of poems, Angels in Seven, which will launch Sunday, June 5 at the dA Center for the Arts in Pomona.
In my second book, The First Thing Mastered, I tracked the formative years of life from infancy to the early 30s. The new book, which is a spiritual sequel of sorts, centers on the age of 35—the changes, hopes, fears and renewals that come with the dawn of middle age. I have long admired artists, such as Richard Linklater and Bruce Springsteen, who build their work around the subject of the phases of life. By the time I finish my next book, I will have more life experience and wisdom to draw from, and that will inevitably inspire poems that I didn’t previously think I had in me. I write, in short, to surprise myself, as all writers must.
Angels in Seven will be the last book released under Moon Tide Press in its original form. For subsequent titles, the press will be known as Moontide Press—and it will have a new, larger team behind it. Susan Davis, whose I Was Building Up to Something came out in 2011, will step in as editor-in-chief, while I will stay on as consulting editor and help with marketing and outreach. Susan, who coordinates undergraduate creative writing at UC Irvine, has created a new staff of current and former undergraduate and graduate students to take Moontide into its next phase. Be on the lookout for the updated website, and more, in the coming months.
For now, thanks to all the many people who helped make Moon Tide a thriving press for eight years. We, and the poets, owe you a debt of gratitude.
Hillary Clinton was scheduled to visit Los Angeles Southwest College on Saturday morning, and the T-shirts were out in full force -- most of them for Clinton, and one for Jackie Robinson. The man six or seven places behind me in line sported a Dodgers jersey with the number 42, which Major League Baseball has retired in honor of its first modern black player. When I got a chance to talk to its wearer, he noted that he had obtained it at a recent game ("The Dodgers gave me this perfect prop") and that he saw a thematic tie between its honoree and LASC's guest of honor. "The Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, right?" he enthused. "And the other day, where did Hillary debate Bernie? Brooklyn! So there's the connection."
That man was the only attendee I saw wearing sports regalia, but the crowd made it plain that Hillary -- we usually, it seems, call her by her first name -- amounted to an underdog hero, and not just for women. One man in line sported a shirt with a portrait of the former secretary of state and the words "Move Over, Boys" surrounding it; another wore a confident-looking closeup of Hillary with the slogan "Like a Boss." When Assemblyman Mike Gipson warmed up the crowd before Clinton's speech, he went out of his way to cite gender: The rhetorical question "Are you ready for the next president of the United States of America?" was quickly followed by "Are you ready for the next female president of the United States of America?" At several points, Hillary team members led the crowd in chants of "I'm with her!" It seems doubtful that a male politician's supporters would pick a slogan as generic as "I'm with him."
Obviously, there's more than gender attached to that slogan. Women have tried and failed repeatedly in the past to score nominations for president, and if Clinton weren't in the running in 2016, there's no reason to doubt that two men would land on the ballot again. But she appears to be a lock for the nomination, and any candidate with her resume -- especially against competition as divisive as hers -- looks hard to defeat. When I quizzed Hillary supporters in line about their reasons for backing her, they spoke about her experience more than the prospect of having America's first female president in office. A pair of men behind me said they preferred Clinton's pragmatic approach over Bernie Sanders' "pie in the sky" optimism; several people cited the fact that her foreign policy experience topped that of Sanders, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. One woman said she admired Clinton's background as a lawyer and added that the former first lady had "the best man in the world" beside her. (When I clarified that she was talking about Bill Clinton, she noted how Hillary had shown strength by "standing by her man" during his infidelities.)
Plain and simple, some people just like Hillary the best of any candidate. Still, the outpouring of feminist sentiment at LASC showed that, while gender may not be center stage during the 2016 campaign, it's at least a pleasing background. Whether in the White House or in the multiplex or on the radio, our society appears to relish strong women now -- unless "relish" is too shallow a word for something so key to human civilization and progress. (The late Christopher Hitchens, not always renowned for his enlightened views on females, still declared outright that the best cure for poverty was the empowerment of women.) As the crowd gathered outside the Cox Library on campus Saturday morning, chest-beating anthems like Rachel Platten's "Fight Song" and Katy Perry's "Roar" blared from the speakers. At the movies in the last year, we've had gritty heroines in the new Star Wars and Mad Max installments, plus a female rabbit cop in the animated Zootopia; even Pixar's Inside Out tracks the emotions inside the head of an 11-year-old whose greatest passion is rough-and-tumble ice hockey. Perhaps we're entering a world where "You fight like a girl" won't be the playground taunt it used to be.
Eight years ago, when Barack Obama was on the verge of scoring the Democratic nomination, a friend told me that his main reason for voting for Obama (over, it should be noted, Hillary herself) was the pure and simple idea of having him in the White House. "I look at him on TV, and he looks the way I want my president to look," he said. "And I hear him give a speech, and he sounds the way I want my president to sound." Some people who queued up at LASC didn't seem to have thought much more about it than that; one woman, after expressing general praise about Hillary's character and credentials, mentioned Trump and asked me, earnestly, "Now, what are his positions again?" If voting in America required passing a test on the intricacies of NATO or the economic repercussions of raising the minimum wage, few people would likely ace it. As part of our freedom, we may pick one candidate over another for the most trivial reasons possible: support for a single issue, better hair, funnier Twitter posts. Sometimes, all it takes is a person who looks and sounds like our ideal vision of the president. After all, we'll spend the next four years seeing and hearing that person a lot.
Obama ruffled some feathers in 2008 when, during a debate, he quipped, "You're likable enough, Hillary." It seemed like a patronizing comment toward a woman politician, not that charisma doesn't factor hugely into male politicians' chances as well. Is Hillary likable, then? I think she is -- although, of course, it depends on what you like. She's not demure or gentle, and her flat, sometimes raspy voice is jolting more than soothing; Jimmy Carter, for one, might lose a shouting match against her. Still, she has an informal charm and seems quick with a laugh or smile -- the kind of woman, in short, that you would share a beer with rather than a cup of tea. I should note by now that, Saturday at LASC, most of us only saw her for about two minutes; she stepped outside the library and spoke before TV cameras before heading inside, where the lucky few at the head of the line got to sit in on her main speech. The microphones didn't broadcast her comments, so we could only hear bits about "balancing" something and needing voters to turn out for the June 7 California primary. When she went inside, the speakers played Katy Perry et al for what seemed like half an hour, and then we listened to her speech: the expected talking points about renewable energy, equal pay, affordable tuition, reproductive rights and so on. At one point, she chided the GOP for being ignorant about climate change and noted the presence of "some science teachers here at Southwest College who can help the Republicans." That line got a big cheer from the crowd.
When the speech ended, the security guards announced that Hillary wouldn't be making another appearance outside, and the crowd gradually dwindled. On my way back to the parking garage, I walked behind a woman with a son who looked about two, and who insisted doggedly that he didn't like girls because they were "stupid." His mother, feigning hurt feelings, asked, "But I'm a girl. Don't you like me?" The boy begrudgingly replied that he did. In sixteen years or so, he may cast a vote for the second woman president. Before then, Zootopia awaits him.
Three years ago this month, Roger Ebert died at the age of 70. I have seldom, if ever, missed a writer more. Like most people, I first knew Ebert as a TV personality -- that "Two Thumbs Up" trademark actually struck me as annoyingly glib when I was middle-school age -- and it was only later, through his reviews and essays, that I grew to appreciate him both as a scholar of movies and as a philosophical writer. After some point, I didn't care if he was reviewing a film or opining about the latest spiritual or political issue that concerned him; his voice, which brought with it the aura of listening to a familiar companion on a back porch, became the occasion itself. Even today, I miss the simple ritual of punching Ebert's website into Firefox to read his latest commentary. What would he have thought about Ferguson and Baltimore? Edward Snowden? Same-sex marriage being legalized? And, Lord have mercy, Donald Trump?
I doubt that his positions on any of them would have come as a shock--the man was a diehard liberal, after all--but unlike the Larry Elders and Michael Moores of the world, Ebert had an unusual gift: to be critical, even vehement, and somehow still oddly reassuring. As a pundit, he was the equivalent of the tough teacher who marks up your paper with red ink but invites you to his office afterward to discuss your next assignment over crackers and tea. As funny as Ebert's negative reviews could be (and he was aware of this: hence the book-length collections I Hated, Hated, HATED This Movie and Your Movie Sucks), you rooted for him to like something--a film, a politician, anything--simply because you knew he would wax so eloquent in describing it. And if he was miserable, the unforced candor of his prose allowed you to share in the feeling, even if it wasn't for laughter's sake.
In Ebert's final years, that latter relationship with his audience became key, especially since humor often wasn't on his mind. By the time he succumbed three years ago, he had battled cancer for a decade, and few celebrities have ever been more up-front about an illness. Famously, Ebert lost his ability to speak and had part of his jaw removed; he still appeared in public with an electronic voice, making no effort to conceal the lower part of his face. On his blog--which, by the time of his death, had become as notable as his reviews--he repeatedly confronted the concept of death, and not merely his own. In his essay "I Remember You," he eulogized departed friends and family members whom he feared the world would forget in 100 years; in "Does Anyone Want to Be 'Well-Read?'", he turned his attention to beloved authors whose books had slipped into obscurity. It is a common belief of religions that we should spend part of life preparing for death. Ebert, who was not particularly religious, let his readers in on that process.
When Ebert died on April 4, 2013, his last published reviews were a pair of two-and-a-half-star writeups of the animated film From Up on Poppy Hill and the sci-fi thriller The Host. Neither seemed like much of a capper for his film-reviewing career, although Ebert didn't intend either one as such; shortly before his death, he posted a message to readers saying that he planned to reduce his workload due to health reasons and that he hoped to "see you at the movies" as he concentrated on reviewing select films. Two days after the message appeared, Ebert was gone. And then, news emerged that Ebert had filed one last review before he passed on: his take on To the Wonder, the impressionistic new film by Terrence Malick, whose The Tree of Life Ebert had hailed recently as one of the greatest films of all time.
Granted, it was not intended as Ebert's final review. But some writings or artworks grow more poignant in context; who, for example, can listen to Elvis Presley's groundbreaking recording of "That's All Right" without recalling the story of the shy 19-year-old who suddenly found his confidence in Sun Studio? Ebert's To the Wonder, taken not merely as a film analysis but as the last review of a man aware that his body was not long for the world, is almost chilling in its appropriateness. Most endings in real life are anticlimactic; many endings in the movies are overly tidy or clever. This one, for what it was worth, felt just about perfect.
I know Ebert's review of To the Wonder better than I know the film itself. I saw it once on a plane when I was tired, and I have just a vague recollection of it. Suffice to say that if you didn't like The Tree of Life or The Thin Red Line, it probably isn't for you--it has the same dreamlike quality, intentionally vague plot points and whispery voiceover narration. In awarding it three and a half stars, Ebert was in the minority (the movie currently holds a 46% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I don't get the feeling, reading his review, that he felt much like being a critic at that moment. He notes the film's "half-understood" dialogue and lack of conventional storytelling, and admits, even while praising the film, that many viewers will probably dislike it.
What Ebert seems to respond to in To the Wonder is not the movie itself so much as the ideas it evokes in him. At times, he sounds almost like a man who has decided that he doesn't need to see any more movies, or at least dissect them the way he used to. At one point, he begins what sounds like a criticism by writing, "As the film opened, I wondered if I was missing something." But then, he adds, "As it continued, I realized many films could miss a great deal." He concedes to not caring that Malick didn't make his plot more linear or his characters' motivations more clear, and then comes to an epiphany of sorts in his second-to-last paragraph:
"Well," I asked myself, "why not?" Why must a film explain everything? Why must every motivation be spelled out? Aren't many films fundamentally the same film, with only the specifics changed? Aren't many of them telling the same story? Seeking perfection, we see what our dreams and hopes might look like. We realize they come as a gift through no power of our own, and if we lose them, isn't that almost worse than never having had them in the first place?
These don't sound like the words of a man who had years of film reviews left in him; to the contrary, they sound like those of a man who has more or less figured out what movies can do and is content to leave them aside. Had Ebert lived, he no doubt would have continued to add reviews to his Great Movies series and stop by the screening room for titles he anticipated. But perhaps the spark would have died. Donald Hall, the former U.S. Poet Laureate who is now in his 80s, stated recently that he had stopped writing poems for the simple reason that he didn't have any more poems in him. Ebert, with his growing real-life concerns, might have reached a similar peace with movie reviews.
Regardless, he ended on a high note: one that showed him at his eloquent best, reviewing a film he admired and delving under the surface for the insights it contained. We have nearly half a century of his other writings to remember him by. And not long after To the Wonder came out, the Chicago Sun-Times published one last Ebert review, one that he had written months earlier and filed away after viewing the movie at a festival. The title of that film? The Spectacular Now. Weigh those titles alongside one another: To the Wonder. The Spectacular Now. In the end, that's what all great writers do. They key us into the wonder, and the now.
I received the sad and shocking news today that Amanda Walzer, a Fullerton College English professor and longtime supporter of local poets and authors, has died of injuries sustained in an Easter Sunday car accident.
I first knew Amanda through the visiting writers program at Fullerton College, which spotlighted remarkable local poets such as Eric Morago and Susan Davis in recent years. Amanda invited me to be the featured author in 2014, and my wife and I were proud to consider her a friend.
In the wake of Amanda's death, her friends have launched a campaign on GoFundMe to raise money for her sons, who are ages 13 and 10. Those interested in donating can do so here.
George Martin has died, and one of our most beloved cultural resources has diminished yet again. The time has come, perhaps, when we can start counting on two hands the number of players in the Beatles’ story who are still with us: Paul, Ringo, Yoko, Pete Best, a few smaller supporting characters. Then contrast them with those we’ve lost: John, George, Stuart Sutcliffe, Brian Epstein, Cynthia Lennon, Linda McCartney, Allen Klein, now Martin as well. A list like that brings to mind a couple of solo Beatle lyrics: “All things must pass,” if we’re feeling philosophical, or “The dream is over,” if we’re not.
I doubt there will ever be another rock band as big as the Beatles, for the simple reason that the world lacks the energy for another. Two years ago, on vacation in Liverpool, I took a historic bus tour—the Magical Mystery Tour, of course—through a series of sites from the group’s formative years. Frankly, it was hog heaven: the four members’ childhood homes, the window of a room where John and Paul once penned songs together, the roundabout mentioned in the lyrics of “Penny Lane.” At one point, the bus driver slowed down and pointed out a dirt path where John used to walk on his way to school. It goes without saying that iPhone cameras were swiftly deployed.
Even still, for me, the bus ride was enough. Every couple of years, it seems, the Beatles become the subject of another definitive, no-stone-left-unturned biography, and I haven’t mustered the energy or time to read them. When Bob Spitz’s nearly 1,000-page The Beatles: The Biography came out in 2005, it seemed like the ante had been upped for good; then, in 2013, came Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, which is almost exactly as long—and, for that matter, is the first part of a trilogy. That isn’t even taking into account the many books on Lennon, whose personal and artistic quirks seem to provide a constant challenge for biographers seeking to reconcile “Imagine” with “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.”
I haven’t pored through the latest books, but whatever myth they shatter or nuance they uncover, one thing fascinates me above all else: the insatiable craving our culture has to know more about these men. At what point do we simply not need any more information about the four residents of England who created “Hey Jude”? The Beatles’ music is wonderful, but many artists create wonderful music. They were a hugely popular band, but any given week, someone has the No. 1 song on Billboard. It could be said that Beatle biographies mostly sell to those who lived through the 1960s, but I recently visited a high school whose music students, producing a live performance of the White Album with historic video segments between tunes, told me things about the band that even I didn’t know. To tweak a line from Bob Dylan—perhaps the only rock performer in history to attain a mythos close to the Beatles’—something is happening here, and we don’t quite know what it is.
Well, maybe there’s a near-answer. I’m currently making my way through Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal, a remarkable book about how narrative is an integral part of human nature. Our instinct, Gottschall writes, is to organize the chaos of life into structured accounts, and we like to do so in broad strokes: the valiant hero, the dastardly villain, the insurmountable obstacle to overcome. We immerse ourselves in stories as a form of escapism, but the stories themselves take us right back to our own problems and fears; we just let Jay Gatsby or Katniss Everdeen deal with them instead. Indeed, I’ve always wondered if the true appeal of the Beatles’ story is the fact that we see so much of ourselves in it—both our dreams and our sober reality. If the band’s story ended in, say, 1965, it would essentially be Rocky with music: Four not-very-rich boys form a band, cut their teeth in the seedy dives of Liverpool and Hamburg, score a record contract against all odds and then, almost literally, conquer the world. Contrast the euphoria over the Beatles in 1964 with, for example, our modern respect for Adele; could you imagine a teeming crowd, held back by police officers, packing the airport to witness her first footstep on American soil?
Probably everyone who has watched A Hard Day’s Night has fantasized, just for a moment, about being one of those four smiling men being chased at the train station. But if the Beatles’ story had gotten just that far—if the band had continued for a bit past the first flush of Beatlemania, decided it wanted to try new projects, then shaken hands and called it a day—it almost certainly wouldn’t be netting major publishing deals in 2016. Rather, the true interest starts after the joyous early years. After the early burst of success comes true rebellion: the band refusing to become Hollywood rock stars, spurning the matching suits and releasing a torrent of albums that redefined rock music as a high art form. On a grand scale, this is the equivalent of telling our boss what we really think of him and then shaking the company to the ground with our dynamic, original ideas. Being chased by screaming girls may be exciting, but slamming that piano chord at the end of “A Day in the Life”—and more or less inventing the concept album with it—has far more resonance, at least in hindsight.
But none of us are the Beatles, and by 1970, neither were the Beatles themselves. If there was a moment that ineffably proved the band’s status as cultural icons, it was the publication several years ago of Peter Doggett’s book You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup. That’s right, an entire book about a rock band’s dissolution—something highly unlikely to happen when Arcade Fire packs it in. If Greek mythology depicted the downfall of gods and Shakespeare wrote about the tragic flaws of kings, then it may be inevitable that our fascination with the Beatles extends to their messy ending. In fact, maybe relief is as good a word as fascination—we don’t like our icons to be too much better than ourselves. Just as our own marriages leave childhood friendships behind, so did John and Yoko’s; just as we find ourselves fed up with our jobs and circumstances, so did George and Ringo when they temporarily stormed out of the band in the late ‘60s. Life didn’t permit the Beatles to stay young and fresh forever, and indeed, if we created their story as fiction, neither would we. As Gottschall notes in The Storytelling Animal, we only allow wish fulfillment for so long.
Instead, we crave catharsis, and the Beatles certainly gave us that. From the Reeperbahn to the London rooftop concert, the band’s story fits snugly into a timeline with a beginning, middle and end—far more consumable than those of, say, the Beach Boys or the Rolling Stones, who stayed together for half a century through personnel changes, reunions and steadily diminishing cultural clout. However many pages it takes to tell the Beatles’ story, it has the snap and story arc of a classic novel. And in the context of that narrative, every character takes on larger-than-life dimensions. This Thursday, the headline of Martin’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times read, “Producer rescued the Beatles from obscurity.” Rescued—that’s a word we typically reserve for heroes. And on the front page, centered above the fold—well, that’s typically where we post their obituaries.