New book is a Valentine for Venice’s powerful but underappreciated literary scene

Sophie Rachmuhl’s “A Higher Form of Politics” speaks for and about  the poets of Venice

Sophie Rachmuhl’s “A Higher Form of Politics” speaks for and about
the poets of Venice

By George Drury Smith

When I moved to Venice in the mid-1960s I had hoped to find and perhaps even join the Beat poetry scene I had read about, but the last public remnant of that Beat era — activist and poet John Haag’s Venice West Café on Dudley Avenue — would soon close, and I couldn’t seem to find any poets.

This was a time before social media and meet-up websites, so I decided to start a literary magazine. A small inheritance allowed me to buy an abandoned building at what is now 1639 Abbott Kinney Blvd., and in late 1968 the first issue of beyond baroque hit the streets. Though it was far from the break-even success I had hoped for, I persisted.

The building provided space for more than just an office, so poet John Harris and the late poet and mystery writer Joe Hansen began a poetry workshop. Soon Beyond Baroque was not only a magazine but also a gathering place for poetry readings, art shows and musical performances.

Although my money had run out, I quit teaching and tried to make a living with the printing equipment I had bought to produce my magazine. I also started working part-time for The Argonaut, where I became associate publisher and worked for more than three decades.

Meanwhile, poets and writers came to Beyond Baroque from all over Southern California to take part, learn and listen, and eventually we provided typesetting equipment for some of them to become poetry publishers themselves. I’m sometimes given credit for what happened, but it is those who helped in the beginning and those who persisted after I moved on who deserve praise for the fact that Beyond Baroque has survived and is now more vital than ever.

Two recent books chronicle a lot of Venice literary history. The latest of these, Sophie Rachmuhl’s “A Higher Form of Politics: The Rise of a Poetry Scene, Los Angeles, 1950-1990,” is the focus of several upcoming events at Beyond Baroque.

At 8 p.m. Friday, Rachmuhl will lead “Poets L.A.: the ‘70s Decade,” a discussion focused on what was happening at Beyond Baroque at the time.

Rachmuhl, a professor of English at France’s Bordeaux/Montaigne University, launches her book with a talk and signing at 4 p.m. Sunday. Published by Otis College of Art and Design/Seismicity Editions and the Beyond Baroque Foundation, the book will be on sale for $12.95 and includes a DVD of the 93-minute documentary “Innerscapes:
10 Portraits of L.A. Poets,” which was produced and directed by Rachmuhl and screens at 7 p.m. that night.

Although Rachmuhl’s book covers essentially the same period as Bill Mohr’s “Hold-Outs: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance, 1948-1992” (published about three years ago by University of Iowa Press), the two books are very different and complement one another. A poet and Cal State University Long Beach professor, Mohr’s book presents a unique personal view of the scene. He and early Beyond Baroque associate director Jim Krusoe, now a creative writing instructor at Santa Monica College, will be among participants at Friday’s program.

Rachmuhl’s book is based on her Ph.D. dissertation written in Los Angeles as she observed the poetry scene during the 1980s — “a scene that I am not a part of … an art I do not practice, in a city where I lived three years,” she writes.

“Being an ‘outsider’ was very useful, too, for it enabled me to write with some kind of neutrality and serenity about a poetry that was both intensely personal and intensely public, yet mostly ignored by the literary establishment (universities and the East Coast literary world) and the entertainment industry that so dominated Los Angeles culture, where fame and power were so significant that they could blind the players to certain aspects of the scene,” the book continues.

Rachmuhl has a keen grasp of the overall dynamics of the Los Angeles literary scene and enhances her book with scores of poetry and interview excerpts. She devotes a great amount of space to the Venice literary scenes — the Venice West Beats of the 1950s and those later involved in Beyond Baroque through the 1970s into the ’90s — but also discusses various black poets and organizations, the Chicano and Latino scene, and the gatherings of women poets at the Woman’s Building.

For anyone curious about Venice’s powerful but under-recognized literary history, this is a must-read.

Smith, author of the novel “The slant hug o’ time,” helped translate Rachmuhl’s book and will also be participating in this weekend’s events. For more information, visit beyondbaroque.org.