Tomorrow Is Another Song, Scott Wannberg (Perceval Press, 2011)
I'm anticipating a visit from Brendan Constantine next week -- a fine poet from the LA Basin who will be reading in the NY area, and hopefully carrying with him some personal reminiscences of his experiences with the late Scott Wannberg . Brendan's visit has brought to mind this review I did of Scott's posthumous publication, TOMORROW IS ANOTHER SONG, a few months ago.
This book is a great introduction, albeit a wistful one, to a beloved figure among a crew of hip/outlaw LA poets who made a big splash on the Venice Beach Bohemian scene. Great because it represents the inimitable Scott Wannberg writing full stride. Wistful because for those who never got to hear the man live, it's too late to actually meet this veritable 'force of nature' face to face.
The original Venice Beach Beat scene, while not as central to the vortices of 50s and 60s bohemianism as the SF-NY poles, included some luminous writing and powerful writers -- and was an important amalgamation between bohemianism and the LA/Hollywood scene.
In more recent times it has been responsible for a whole lot more -- including the Outlaw Bible of American Poetry.
Wannberg's own origins on the scene seem to have derived early on from his position in a bookstore in the Brentwood section of LA, where his accretion of pop and literary culture became a touchstone to both alternative and Bohemian types. Later, it was his larger than life, voluble participation in activities with the Carma Bums that established his reputation.
Ill health in recent years forced a kind of semi-retirement to Florence Oregon, but did not reduce his iconic presence. He continued to disseminate his work, prolifically -- notably through social media, where his posting of multiple poems on a daily basis was testament to his continuing powers as a hip/dada spokesperson for the politics of progressivism and alternative culture, Southern California style.
Wannberg's poetry was that of the disjunctive present, masking social and political criticism in a melange of pop cultural metaphor, fast talking wordplay, idiosyncratic mythmaking. A kind of panning in the shallow stream of pop culture for jokes and reference points which often enough transcends mixed metaphor to turn up gold nuggets.
His targets were standard enough -- American militarism, Wall Street greed, economic injustice, bourgeois superficiality, intolerance and the like. The plasticity of tinsel town both amused and repelled him. The potential for a rebirth of wonder was never far from his free-wheeling, iconoclastic, bubble-bursting glee.
He spoke in code sometimes, and his syntax was not always clear enough to tell in whose voice he was placing various utterances -- his own, that of a protagonist, or that of the many targets of his incisive satirical barbs. But he spoke convincingly, entertainingly and prolifically.
This book reveals Wannberg in full voice, provocative to the very end. It also reveals on close reading what is arguably a parting shot of sorts at po-biz -- and in particular, the lamentable presence of careerism, egoism, superficiality, sycophancy, and various manifestations of clique behavior among the overinflated and ego-filled.
Consider "Please Remove Your Brain In The Presence Of...," a scene of rank superficiality among performers wrangling for attention while dissolving into sameness, a crew of people whose success is losing steam, and anyhow 'overrated/their managers had done too well with the press clippings.'
"Pretty People's Paranoid Party" carries this message along. There is a cadre of pretty people making noise in Wannberg's carport, ironically enough about being afraid of noisy people. Wannberg runs out and throws a phone book at them, saying 'here's your way out, now shut up and let me chill out.' Of course he's no better off -- a group of ugly people replace them, and their talk is so quiet 'it's downright eerie.' Sycophants or glamerati, that carport, Wannberg laments, just has something about it 'that attracts all kinds.'
The poet remains cagy in his metaphorical masking of individual targets. But as the poems accrete, it's clear that he's got a scene and a set of personality types in mind. In "Hard Road Claims You Gave It The Cold Shoulder" Wannberg takes on an unnamed 'noted poet,' who pulls out his hair and yells for someone to 'make me quotable.' An army of people begin to recite his work, gutting one another 'in the name/of a higher/love.'
In several poems he expresses a kind of self-alienation, at least from his public persona. In "Thar She Blows" he portrays himself as a kind of Moby Dick, objectified and turned into a kind of tourist attraction for younger boho-wannabes -- when all he really wants to do is enjoy his final days with as much dignity and simplicity as possible.
In "No Heart Attacks at Testimonial Landing," he describes being outside of the limelight, looking in at former buddies. 'Surely everyone knows you by now,' he writes. 'They have marathons and telethons in our honor. When the dog brings in the paper I see your face on page one....I know you are at Testimonial Landing/working on your acceptance speech.' Even though he doesn't really understand the purpose of what is going to happen at the event, he wishes to go -- but his own ill health keeps him from being able to be part of it.
At Testimonial Landing there is a sign that before you cross the bridge that says 'no heart attacks need apply,' and besides, he keeps getting splinters in his feet when he tries to cross that bridge. I should get some shoes soon enough and then I can come over and see just what the hell is going on in your life.
And in "Devil Had Nothing To Do With It...I Did It All By Myself," Wannberg challenges the assertions of innocence of a person who 'can handle all the publicity... all me Iago, Mr Othello," he says. 'Let me walk at your side...the diapers of the rising famous are covered in blood... We'll leave scars in the thighs of the country.'
Though he accepts his own role, Wannberg places fault squarely on the shoulders of his media-savvy target. 'Quit telling me the Devil made you do it," he says. "I saw you use both of your hands.'
The author offers an apology for his own culpability, in "Maniac In The Engine." There's a force, he declares 'that wants so very hard to love you' but which causes a poet to become a manic strong man, to 'talk so musical you can't do anything but give in" and to swear that his 'magic is holy.' To the extent the portrait is of Wannberg, he offers a caveat by expressing what his initial intentions were to express a kind of innocent wonder, not to dominate. 'I came over to your private war to borrow a cup of sugar...I just wanted to read the book of your eyes. I just wanted to ask you your name.'
In the end, Wannberg offers an alternative figure as a model of West Coast literary legitimacy -- Raymond Carver.
Carver, an Oregon poet whose hard-boiled film noir characters bear a striking counterpoint to the more cynical Southern California Bukowski, is portrayed in 'Raymond Carver Two Step' as ultimately generous, gentle and living in 'real earth.'
His fingers danced on the skin of stars. His people wanted their shot at song, even if their mouths were numb. He gave them a dance floor, even when they felt they had run out. He gave them longitude and faces. He gave them latitude and skin. He simply gave.
For all his derisive satire, Wannberg reveals his true gentle self and sense of acceptance, in the finely tempered "There's Going to be Room Enough."
'There's this room with your name on it/at the end of some road...waiting for you to call it home/there's going to be more than enough room for you in it,' he writes. That room will accept the person in question, regardless of his imperfections or faults. 'Doesn't matter if you feel you can't be loved. This room is going to let you in it/even if the key breaks in the lock...This room goes by many names but truly responds to only one. it's the one name your heart paints it. I know you told your biographers that your heart was incapable of flying. This morning I saw it somersaulting in the sky.
Tomorrow is Another Song is a gift and a promise -- a prescription -- from Scott Wannberg to us all, presumptive or small. In his fabulous manner, he reminds us that there is a hero and a villain in all of us, a sad, ridiculous but loveable character to be laughed at and loved and corrected…and ultimately, accepted.
If we can do this, Scott Wannberg offers, we can be true to our own hearts. If we can do this, we can find our way to the room with our name on it.
If we can do this, we can turn our own cartwheels in the sky.