SCOTT WANNBERG: CALLING THE COSMIC PLAY-BY-PLAY
by Rip Rense
(A version of this article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times
A colleague once announced to me,
long ago, with undisguised pride in his voice, "my girlfriend's a poet." I
resisted an urge to shoot back something like, "Oh. For what firm?" Or
"Really. Does she have a dental plan?"
I don't think of writing poetry as
a profession, or an occupation. To me, it's more a preoccupation---a function of one's
nature. You no more announce that your girlfriend is a poet than you proclaim she is a
philosopher or mystic. Writing poems is something you do because you have to. You see a
rose, or a three-legged cat, and you must write about it. Poets who regard their work as a
profession can wind up like Edgar Allan Poe---drunk, sick, broken-hearted, and dead too
soon. Either that, or they appear in blue jean commercials for MTV.
Philip Larkin, a very great poet,
was a librarian. Probably had a dental plan.
Scott Wannberg, rest assured, is a
poet. Oh, his words might not be widely published; might not even be noticed much when he
recites them aloud, but it doesn't matter. He is cursed to see the rose and the
three-legged cat all the time. He must write.
I've noticed, in this era of the
hyphen and the slash, that many people claim the title, "poet," or
"artist," "writer," "actor" on business card and resume.
I've actually seen a guy on TV---a nice enough chap, it seemed---bafflingly identified as
a "poet/journalist." (Assign that man to the O.J. trial, I say.) It seems that
in order to claim these time-honored, hallowed titles nowadays, one must merely have
written a poem, or painted a picture, or invented a story, or acted---once, twice,
occasionally, somewhere, anywhere, who cares? I write once in a while, therefore I'm a
All dubious respect to the business
card poets/artists/writers/ actors out there---but dabbling doth not a lofty title merit.
You're doing guys like Wannberg a serious disservice.
I mean, I knew Wannberg back at
Venice High School when he was sixteen, and speaking poetry. You couldn't shut him up. It
was a stream-of-consciousness kind of Chick Hearn-meets-Charles Bukowski narrative about
friends and current events heavily laced with references to Sam Peckinpah movies and
neighborhood dogs. (Come to think of it, it still is!) He couldn't help himself. He calls
the cosmic play-by-play.
Somewhere along the line, he dammed
the stream and started capturing the words on paper, then enrolled at San Francisco State
University and majored in poetry. This, I think, was essentially a device to facilitate
writing as many poems as possible while happening to earn a diploma. God knows a degree in
poetry doesn't set you up for power lunches and a BMW. In Wannberg's case, it hasn't
translated to much more than a couple of burritos on the MTA bus that takes him home.
Yet Scott is an L.A. fixture, if
not a minor icon. He's been reciting his poems at readings around town for 20 years now,
has published three volumes of it (one carries the memorable title, "The Electric Yes
Indeed") and occasionally tours the western states in an old Cadillac with a bunch of
other poets calling themselves "The Carma Bums." They descend on coffee houses
from Seattle to San Diego, make enough money for gas and hamburgers, then go back to their
day jobs. This is roughly the wordsmith equivalent of being a rock star.
As far as I know, Wannberg has
never announced his occupation as "poet." In a society with a media that
routinely equates barely literate pop music lyrics with poetry, he settles for the title
"clerk" in Dutton's Books, a reader's bookstore on San Vicente in Brentwood.
He's been there, across the street from that lovely median strip of coral trees, since
1980. If you drop in, you can't miss him. He's the big, hulking, impossibly well-read,
garrulous guy who seems to know where all the books are buried; the one who leaves more
than a few customers in mild shock as he tells them exactly how---or how not---to find an
opus they haven't been able to find anywhere else.
"It's a living," he'll
tell you. "At least I'm not working for the CIA, or the O.J. trial."
I dropped in on Scott the other
day, to talk and give him a lift home. I found him outside the bookstore, having a gentle
conversation with a customer's golden retriever, and I swear the dog was smiling and
nodding. Maybe it liked poets (or poets' dog biscuits---Scott keeps several boxes of
treats behind the counter for visiting canines.) Wannberg told me he's finishing a book of
new works all about the O.J. trial, entitled, "Juice, The Musical, and Other Poems of
the O.J. Simpson Debacle" (Rose of Sharon Press.) In a few minutes, we were driving down
Bundy, speculating about the dearth of empathy in the late 20th century, eyeing the
eternal gawkers outside Nicole Brown Simpson's condo.
Wannberg, "It's just a building. What are they going to do, bow to it? Like Mecca?
Guess they think it beats going to a porno theater."
He mentioned that he and
fellow Carma Bum S.A. Griffin were interviewed on radio recently about proposed National
Endowment for the Arts cuts. I was reminded that this poet is a realist.
"We're just writers, me and
S.A.," said Wannberg, "and we don't give a damn about the NEA. We've never
applied for a grant. If you can apply for a grant and get one, cool. But if they're going
to be cutting Medicare and this and that, I don't expect to get $20,000 so I can not do
any work and just write poetry. Give me a break! If you've got a drive, you do it. One guy
at the radio station thought we were elitist or something."
Elitist? A guy who rides MTA buses
to work? Well, in a way, perhaps he is. I suspect that Wannberg doesn't quite fit in with
the whole poetry crowd, for the absence of a "politically correct" agenda in his
work. His ink mathematics, to borrow a Captain Beefheart expression, do not add up to
sanctimonious kneejerk pontification about the darling topics of the left. Scott's is
free-verse, rapid-fire Beat tradition stuff, minus the self-seriousness that renders so
much of this type of poetry narcissistic annoyance. If anything, it reminds me a little of
the style of Don Marquis, author of "Archie and Mehitabel." There is considered
comment, an almost journalistic reportage of events, wit both searing and absurdist,
frivolousness, poignance, and much heart---all framed in a jigsaw Wannbergian context of
old movies, friendly dogs, hard truth, and disdain of cruelty. It's a formula all his own,
uncompromising and without contrivance.
When we got to his home, he showed
me one of his latest works, which left me nearly on the floor. It's called "The
Unforseen Death of My TV," and begins like this:
"My TV killed itself last night as I
slept/I woke up and stumbled into the living room/and found it altogether in pieces/its
life conduit snapped viciously. . ." Later in the poem, a suicide note from the
TV explains "Sorry to do this to the both of us/but I am sick and tired to death
of/ all this O.J. Simpson trial. . ." and eventually adds "I am tired
and more than tired of carrying/this media circus joke on my back/so I am ending it/
besides you need to read more books. . ." (His morning newspaper, and a number
of magazines, also eventually blow their brains out.)
Of course, you might find that you
prefer rhyming couplets, or Larkin, or Jack Kerouac, or Robinson Jeffers or William
Wordsworth. But you can't argue with the fact that Scott Wannberg is a poet who works long
and hard at his craft, whether he puts it on a business card or not.
To say anything less would be
FOR A NICE SKETCH OF SCOTT, CLICK HERE.
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