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Work, or The Man Who Shot Frank O’Hara

By Garrett Caples

it is how life as lived—is lived—.
—Richard O. Moore, “Over the Shoulder”

The other day Cedar Sigo and I went to Mill Valley to visit Richard O. Moore (pictured), who last year at age 90 released his first book, a selected poems called Writing the Silences (University of California). Among the poets identified by Michael Davidson in The San Francisco Renaissance (Cambridge, 1989) as members of the original Rexroth Libertarian-Anarchist circle—Lamantia, Duncan, Spicer, Everson, Gleason, Broughton, and Parkinson—Richard was the one you hadn’t heard of, because he’d stopped publishing poetry early on, though he never stopped writing it. Instead he became one of the founders of the first listener-supported radio station in the country—KPFA—and subsequently co-founded the 6th public television station, KQED. Indeed, in the poetry world, Richard is probably best known for his television work, directing a series of short films about poets ranging from John Wieners to Anne Sexton; among these films is what appears to be the only sound footage of Frank O’Hara, shot shortly before his tragic early death. Despite his fine touch with the cîné-poême—which, even in the inevitably more “square” confines of ’60s American TV, recalls other poet-filmmakers like Christopher Maclaine—Richard traded in his director’s quirt for executive roles, eventually running a pair of stations in Minneapolis. When I asked him about this, he raised his hands in mock surrender: “It was a job,” he said modestly.

I believe him and I don’t. That is, though he’s never said anything like this to me, I imagine his social consciousness and pacifist anarchist principles brought him to mass media—or rather, media supported by the masses—despite the inevitable compromises of dealing with the corporate world. He wasn’t able to make an episode with Rexroth, for example, because he couldn’t secure funding to film so anti-establishment a figure. “Once you enter management,” Richard said, “your job primarily becomes raising money.” With his unforced urbanity, he was good, I’m sure, even at so uncongenial a task. Like Carl Rakosi disappearing from the poetry scene for almost 30 years to be a social worker, Richard sacrificed his own literary ambitions for something more socially impactful. Yet, at the same time, it was, as he said, a job, something he fell into accidently, I think, through having a good broadcaster voice. One thing led to another, in other words, and Richard is from the generation where the academic route wasn’t the goal, or indeed even a possibility, for most poets, whereas now it’s almost an expectation. In a lot of circles, if you don’t get a job that directly involves poetry, you’ve failed, or at least come up second best.

I was stimulated to these reflections in part by the Bay Area’s own Poetic Labor Project, run by Lauren Levin, Steve Farmer, Alli Warren, and Brandon Brown. This blog began last year as a Labor Day conference I couldn’t attend because I had to work, but the talks were recorded and you can find delightful things on the website like Cedar talking about his job selling cosmetics. While it doesn’t exclude participation by “professionals,” the blog is largely a well-needed reaction to the increasing professionalization of poetry. In its effort to reverse the stigma of working outside of poetry, the Poetic Labor Project seems to suggest that, not only are you not a failure for not being a professional poet, but you might actually be better off. This is not, however, to denigrate anyone for having an academic job of any sort. Half the poets I know and love teach at the college or university level and for all I know, I may end up doing so myself someday (I finished my degree, just in case). But, if it’s tied to your job, you need to be extra-vigilant in guarding your poetry against any form of compromise, because jobs inherently involve compromise. Behave. Don’t offend. Don’t rock the boat or be difficult. These are admirable principles of the professional workplace but they are the death of poetry. In academia, you’ve got to carry your poetry like a match you’re trying to keep lit while crossing the street in a hurricane. If there’s one thing I can say about Richard, it’s that his poetry is singularly uncompromised by professional poet concerns or fashions.

Still the problem of work remains. Many poets I know are not suitable job material. This isn’t to say they’re lazy. On the contrary, when the occupation at hand is their own writing, they can be quite industrious. But this industry has no remuneration, and barring independent wealth, and those four or five superstars who can make it purely on readings and writing, every poet needs a job, sometimes several, to survive. I thought I was going to be a professor—an ordinary lit prof, not creative writing—but by the time I finished the Ph.D., I knew I was done with academia, leaving me, age 30, with a useless degree, a small amount of debt, and no real work experience beyond teaching the odd course. “Terrified” doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. I have clinical depression, keep irregular hours, and have difficulty doing most things that aren’t my own writing, and none of this is conducive to getting or keeping a job. And I’ve never been good at convincing someone to hire me to do something I don’t actually want to do. But eventually, after a series of dismal temp assignments, I lucked out. I got a fill-in gig as legal proofreader, which I’m told is an old poet’s job but nowadays much harder to find. At first the job was completely random; I came in when called, usually without notice, and some weeks no one called. But the work paid well when it was there, and, after holding on for five years, I first got a regular schedule and finally was hired when both full-time proofreaders retired. Reading legal documents isn’t exactly fun, but, at the same time, the work is congenial. I take a kind of impersonal interest in fixing a sentence, the way, I imagine, a mechanic might experience intellectual enjoyment in fixing an engine, as a problem to be solved. The job has drawbacks—my weekend is Tuesday-Wednesday and I mostly work nights, making social life challenging—but I’m extremely grateful to have it.

Again, however, it took awhile to reach this point, and in the interim, I developed a couple of sidelines to try to make ends meet. Inspired, like an idiot, by the French symbolist and cubist poets, I determined to try my hand at journalism—just as, of course, the entire newspaper industry began its still-flailing collapse. The plan was to find something I could write about that people might pay for, which was definitely not poetry and turned out to be hip-hop. Even so, it’s a crowded field, but I knew what I especially wanted to write about was Bay Area hip-hop, which had been chronically underrepresented in the local alt-weeklies since the rap scene out here went cold in the early 2000s. And again, I got lucky; I’d been bothering the editors of the San Francisco Bay Guardian about local rap and they weren’t hearing it, until the scene began to heat up again in 2005. I must have been the only one knocking at their door, because, after being unable to place a record review, I suddenly found myself writing a cover story of my own. With the explosion of new and previous pent-up talent, I had my own “beat,” if you will, with a steady stream of new artists to cover. I became a contributing writer, eventually able to stick a few things in there about poetry and painting, and getting paid to write about poetry even occasionally is a gas.

The other sideline developed by chance. After Philip Lamantia’s death in 2005, I helped his wife, City Lights co-owner and retired executive director Nancy Joyce Peters, put his papers together in order to sell them to the Bancroft Library at the University of California. I was barely getting by and Nancy perceived this, so she offered me some proofreading plus a little office work. I started going to City Lights once a week, a routine I continue to maintain. But the work has grown steadily more important. For a time, I became an editorial assistant, helping out on some books, and the press also let me edit a Pocket Poets book of an unpublished MS of Lamantia’s, Tau, coupled with the poems of his friend, John Hoffman, who died young and whose poems Philip read at the 1955 Six Gallery reading at which Ginsberg premiered “Howl.” I had to take the book through the various production stages and, though I didn’t know it at the time, I was pretty much being trained. One thing led to another, then one day I found myself listed as an editor in the catalog. No one said anything to me, but such discretion, I’ve learned, is not unprecedented at City Lights. I’m not technically an employee—chance has outpaced budget, so I work by contract—but I feel like part of the team. I’ve acquired projects and taken others on as needed. Most wonderfully, I’ve been able to edit a number of books of poetry, including a new series. I ain’t gonna lie, it feels like an awesome responsibility. I can only try not to fuck it up by making books that will both sell and do the place justice, a balancing act worthy of the store’s Chaplinesque name.

So, against all odds, I’ve wound up with “professional” involvement with poetry, though not my own. Theoretically, presuming the same editorial abilities, it wouldn’t matter if I were a poet or not, though at the same time, I never would have ended up working for City Lights were it not for my life as poet. And though I could probably now live on my proofreader pay, I’m not sure I could live without City Lights.

Posted in Featured Blogger on Tuesday, May 17th, 2011 by Garrett Caples.