We won't have Lee Mallory to kick around anymore.
To be fair, Mallory—a veteran professor of English as a second language at Santa Ana College and a mainstay on the Orange County poetry scene since the '80s—never made a very plausible villain. Sure, he came up for some good-natured ribbing in the pages of OC Weekly: Jim Washburn deemed him one of OC's scariest people; I dubbed him "The Poet Laureate of OC's Middle Class"; Commie Girl columnist Rebecca Schoenkopf recounted his weird, faux-gestapo behavior one night at Club Mesa; former editor Will Swaim (allegedly) hid under his desk to avoid taking a call from him.
Now, Mallory is retired—his classes have ended, his readings shuttered. Some of his papers, including work by nearly every OC-based poet, have been boxed and sent to his alma mater UC Santa Barbara for a special "Lee Mallory Collection," which is part of that school's study of the legendary poet Charles Bukowski, of whom Mallory was an acquaintance. Other work by Mallory is being preserved at the Santa Ana College Nealley Library.
Meanwhile, as with Bukowski, the man himself is gone—not dead, though, just moved to Las Vegas, although he will be back for a "retirement reading" on May 7 at the Gypsy Den in Santa Ana, to be hosted by fellow poet Jaimes Palacio.
But underneath the jibes and the annoyance with his, ahem, insistent promotion efforts were three steadfast beliefs. First, he could take the heat, whereas a lot of other poets couldn't. Second, you could razz him, but his work was too important to ignore. Third, Mallory, whatever his faults, has been a force for good in OC. No, really.
While OC was at its most soulless in the late '80s, as the corporate Reagan Youth movement all but obliterated the county's counterculture, Mallory—the author of eight poetry collections—helped to found the Factory Readings in Santa Ana and, later, Poetry At Alta in Newport Beach, readings that long remained part of the county's intellectual fabric.
Mallory teamed up with poet Jana McCarthy, who had been one of his creative writing students, in September 1988 to start the Factory Readings. "Prior to that," recounts Mallory, poets Marcia and Pat Cohee were running a reading in Santa Ana, which stopped when they took the helm of the venerable Laguna Poets reading, which then met at the Laguna Beach Library. "Jana and I filled in by starting a reading of our own. It got named the Factory Readings because we started it at what was called the Chicago Pizza Factory—now it's the Olde Ship or something, after many incarnations."
Between then and the reading's recent closure (Palacio took the reins under his own brand, but alas, that series will also be ending with Mallory's May 7 feature), the reading bounced among several ill-fated venues, including Hennessey's Tavern in Santa Ana, Cook Book Restaurant in Tustin, Casa Palma Rest & Bar in Santa Ana, and oft-controversial Koo's Arts Café, before landing at the Gypsy Den (first in Costa Mesa, and then in Santa Ana).
As others came and went, Mallory remained undeterred, outlasting all of the readings that emerged during the poetry boom of the '90s, save the Two Idiots Peddling Poetry at the Ugly Mug in Orange. This sometimes bewildered younger poets who, on occasion, found his performance style melodramatic, thought his reputation as "The Love Poet" out-of-step with grunge-era cynicism, or bristled at his constant promotion—although, in retrospect, the fabled "Mallory Alerts" that flooded newspaper offices countywide were usually on behalf of some poet Mallory was promoting, rarely the promoter himself.
"Arrogance is how revolutions, even literary ones, succeed," reflects Mallory. "What's worse, or better, a few of us became tireless—even shameless—poetry promoters, myself included, with a fervor akin to zealotry, I admit. But remember—stupid or overdone or arrogant as it may have seemed—I had a mission. Probably still do and will no doubt die that way—not, I hope, fade away like some around us have done, though each has done his part, and some have left us wonderful legacies in print."
Indeed, in addition to his own numerous books and chapbooks, Mallory has served as an editor for the OC-based Moon Tide Press, which published first books by many OC poets, including Two Idiots co-producer Ben Trigg and Mindy Nettifee, who's quickly becoming a national poetry sensation.
Mallory says he wrote his first poem in '68 and studied with acclaimed poet Kenneth Rexroth at UCSB. "In the beginning," he says, "my 'juvenalia' was probably sentimental, drippy and overly romantic, being also influenced as I was by the 19th-century French poets. You see, I longed to travel to France, study Baudelaire and write lyrics in misty Pont Neuf parks like Verlaine."
By Mallory's own account, his trajectory changed when he met Bukowski through his brother-in-law, the poet Thomas Kerrigan.
"I was 25, Kerrigan a little older," recounts Mallory. "Buk was about 51. He'd go to his house on DeLongpre, and he woudn't let you in unless you brought beer. He would feign acting bothered, at first—even suspicious—and termed the young poets who called on him 'sharks.' He put me in a poem with that name, I think, in 'Mockingbird Wish Me Luck' [circa 1972]. A guy in the poem is named Lee, but I'm not 100 percent sure it's me. After a while, we could see that his reticence to welcome us was a pose, the gruff, ol' reprobate, 'king of LA poets,' for, unlike many others, he always let us in. His place was shabby—one bedroom, I think, the kitchen usually a mess, beer cans everywhere. He was, after all, a bachelor."
Mallory admits Bukowski influenced him hugely, "especially when I started to read everything by him I could find. . . . Oddly, [I] was attracted to the futility he saw in life. . . . Bukowski, for me, caught all that in his poem, 'The Shoelace.'"
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Writes Bukowski: "With each broken shoelace/out of one hundred broken shoelaces/one man, one woman, one/thing/enters a/madhouse."
And perhaps it's fair to say Mallory has always been cognizant of the madhouse in which he has been writing and promoting poetry, and he has always treated it as such. How else to explain the years of carnival showmanship, the mad, incomprehensible letters to newspaper editors, the almost Quixotic stewardship of poetry readings in places that almost seemed to reject any infusion of culture?
"What did I learn?" asks Mallory. "Simply what Lawrence Ferlinghetti had said in his 'Populist Manisfesto'—that poetry is for the people, not only for some elite group of literati hanging in the idyllic hills of Santa Barbara."
Mallory has lived by that idea, eschewing a solely academic career for sometimes-thankless toil in OC's odd corners. Now he's off to inevitably cause his unique brand of chaos elsewhere. And frankly? Orange County's the poorer for it.