Photo by Keith MayThere are nearly three million stories in Orange County, more if you throw in Long Beach. Regrettably, the writing of one storyteller is already fading from memory: Gary Tomlinson's. A Fullerton poet and noise artist, Tomlinson was nearly iconic in the Orange County poetry scene for more than 15 years until his recent death at 50. His work was dense, philosophical and cerebral, measuring the value of life in Harley-Davidsons, dead possums, sex and bloodletting.
His work was also—like the local poetry scene itself—ephemeral. It turns out his publications were rare; even by the local platinum status of a chapbook—a cheaply photocopied, stapled collection of poems—Tomlinson was nearly invisible.
I bring this up because of the recent and welcome release of two real volumes of local poetry. Incidental Buildings & Accidental Beauty is an anthology of Orange County and Long Beach poetry; The Big Damn Poetry Slam CD collects most of the winners of this year's Long Beach/Orange County Poetry Slam. (Full disclosure: I appear in both and plan to retire to the Caymans off sales of the free copies I received in payment.) Tomlinson appears in neither; so let's say that his absence ought to remind us to record our artists' achievements before it's too late.
Incidental Buildings & Accidental Beauty, published by Tebot Bach, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting poetry in Orange County, collects into a single volume the poems of 57 Orange County and Long Beach poets. A few of these poems would have survived in any case—Charles Harper Webb, Gerald Locklin and Robert Peters are already well-published and acclaimed. But most of these writers are completely unknown, even to poetry insiders. That makes the book not only an important historical document, but a collection of surprises. In newcomer Buffy Shaheen's "Situ Lay Dying," the poet extends food metaphors into an elegant conceit. "Dance once more with the naked eggplant/So, I can see the swirl of the babaganoosh/Under the olive oil moon." Others are more raw, such as James Michael Warren's bizarre homage to people dreaming of a better life, "In the Outhouse": "Whitey jerks off/While staring at a lingerie ad," he writes. "Sara scans a theater review/And attempts to project herself/Onto a stage where drama/Doesn't leave bruises."
This is a melancholy book, rife with personal loss and the emptiness of land development and materialism, and a sense that what makes each person unique is somehow being lost. "How I feel is all I am," writes Huntington Beach's Charles Ardinger in the poem "Six Point Zero." "The creatures fathoms below autophosphoresce,/Not speak . . . I'm a verb not alive." Daniel McGinn ponders the suicide of young Newport Beach poet Misty Mallory (whose work also appears in this book), stating plainly, "How strange a world/that our children wouldn't rather stay/than go."
It's a question that might be asked of the county itself. Taken together, these poems are likely to lead you to the conclusion that there is something dead inside "vibrant" Orange County, hollowness that its wealth and good weather cannot conceal. But while the despair and longing in this book are undeniable, they're balanced by a sense of inherent hopefulness, a feeling that the world can be something better—or as Derrick Brown puts it, "And the children giggle and listen and realize, that some broken down machines/can always spin again."
Like the anthology, The Big Damn Poetry Slam CD anthologizes a wide variety of poets performing in the greater Orange County area, although to be a fair quite a few are from LA. In a lot of ways, the CD mirrors the anthology, not just in terms of authorship (the CD and the book share several poets, including Hope Alvarado, Derrick Brown and Michael Paul) but in terms of themes: As with Incidental Buildings, there's a feeling of malaise in the poet's Orange County. Alvarado describes the emptiness of her corporate job, where she sleeps in hotel rooms and works with strangers, contrasting that with the bizarre take-off and landing procedure at John Wayne Airport, describing the sudden sinking feeling when the engines cut off over Newport Beach.
If anything, the CD's poems are perhaps more personal, the loss and disjointedness shown to spiral even further back in origin. For example, Ben Porter Lewis, in a piece entitled "Exile (at the point of no return)," discusses the madness of his childhood in Vietnam, and his half-African-American, half-Vietnamese heritage. "Saigon boys don't cry," he says, but of course we know they do. Likewise, in the heart-rending "The Hollow Cost," Rachel Kann admits that her cigarette smoking stems ironically from a fear of fire, which (in turn) stems from her people's destruction at the hands of the Nazis. "Guess it's all part of being a Jew," she says. On the page, it's glib; on the CD, it's brutal.
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What rings false in most media accounts of life in OC is the smug self-satisfaction, the implication that this Orange County is as good as life gets. Back in December 1999, for instance, Orange Coast Magazine ran a series of essays by OC community leaders, reflecting on the county's future. Most contributors—predictably—indicated that we live in heaven on earth; a few implied that Orange County's ills can be corrected by more development—bigger roads, a second airport. Then-county CEO Jan Mittermeier went so far as to liken the place to Disneyland.
These poems suggest the struggle against that sort of propaganda isn't dead—it just moved into poetry. Discourse on race and politics has become the province of contemporary poetry, as has reflection on the bleakness of materialism. One track on the CD, R-A-C's "His," recalls her childhood, an upbringing so cruel she finds herself envying the homeless, how they get to start each day from scratch. She looks out at them, and sees a message in their eyes, "begging me to change."
The most important message of the book and the CD is that change is, indeed, possible, and that it's not too late.
Incidental Buildings & Accidental Beauty, edited by the five penny poets; Tebot Bach. 102 pages. $12 softcover; will be available at a release party at a mysterious place in Long Beach; RSVP at (714) 267-9767 or email@example.com; also at the Tebot Bach Reading Series, Fidelity Federal Bank, 19900 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach, (714) 968-0905, Fri., June 29, 8 p.m. Free; The Big Damn Poetry Slam CD, $15, is available at the Long Beach/Orange County Poetry Slam, 210 Promenade, Long Beach, (562) 983-7111, every Sunday at 3 p.m. Free.