Memory and Daily Life in the Invisible City
By Paul Vangelisti, Founding Chair, Graduate Writing
Time and place operate curiously in the daily and often dull ineptitude of a grammar that might describe such as fictive utility as L.A.
I must begin by mentioning the debt of gratitude I owe the Parisian poet Mohammed Dib, who consistently made me aware that L.A. was indeed the Invisible City, borrowing from me, as it were, the title for my literary magazine, Invisible City, which I edited with John McBride from 1971–82. During his stay in L.A., Dib would often smile capriciously and ask, as the afternoon began to cool, if it weren’t time to set off in my Datsun sedan and visit our invisible city, so that we might add to our “petites histoires.”
Poetry, for me, then, issues from the invisible city, the big nowhere that is L.A. Ours is a city of “theatrical impermanence,” as Christopher Isherwood called it, the home of tautological architecture where hot dog and hamburger and donut stands take on the shape of hot dogs and hamburgers and donuts, where at any given time only a little more than onethird of the population has lived there for more than five years. L.A. is blessed, in Tennessee Williams’ words, with “wonderful rocking horse weather, and a curious light so mesmerizing that, as Orson Welles once noted, ‘You sit down, you’re twenty-five, and when you get up, you’re sixty-two.‘” It functions, according to the poet Thomas McGrath, as the “Asia Minor of the intellect,” a place where, in the immortal words of the legendary producer Irving Thalberg (namesake for the Academy’s Oscar for “life-time achievement”), the writer is no less than “a necessary evil.” L.A. is also a place that has afforded writers and artists, to borrow a phrase from long-time resident Igor Stravinsky, “splendid isolation.” Memory in so willfully forgetful a place is critical, defining an almost palpable dimension of daily life, which is all the more vivid in contrast to the perpetual elsewhere that best describes one’s writing practice there.
Time and place operate curiously in the daily and often dull ineptitude of a grammar that might describe such as fictive utility as L.A. Time, for instance, may function as a property of light, a perpetual present or “timelessness” in close relationship to the peculiarly isolate and meditative light that is the single most distinguishing characteristic of our city. “Lots and lots of light–and no shadows,” notes artist Robert Irwin, “Really peculiar, almost dreamlike.”
I am suggesting that a preoccupation with our daily bread is a poet’s attempt to ground his or her work if not exactly in some form of realism, at least in a realistic attitude or position within this wacky environment. Lacking the public occasion and certainly the public form for serious literature—museums and other educational and public institutions in our city are hardly more than specimen boxes in today’s cultural marketplace—some poets instinctively employ the daily to create a context for their work, social, dramatic or otherwise. In a city where the image is considered truthful, and entrepreneurs the likes of (fill in the name of whatever current pop culture boss) are discussed in university and college classrooms as creative geniuses, a poet may look to his or her own isolated daily life to fashion a background against which language may be given room for serious play.
This piece is excerpted from a longer essay that first appeared in Seeing Los Angeles: A Different Look at a Different City, edited by Guy Bennett and Beatrice Mousli; Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2007 Graduate Writing faculty member Martha Ronk’s poems also appeared in this publication.
Image: Sumi-e drawing by Les Biller