Leland Hickman’s TIRESIAS: THE COLLECTED POEMS

Reading for Leland Hickman’s TIRESIAS: THE COLLECTED POEMS
Date & Time: Wed., Jan. 13, 2010 @ 8:00PM
Location: The Poetry Project @ St. Marks Church, 131 E. 10th St. NYC (212) 674-0910
Admission: Free

Los Angeles poet and editor Leland Hickman (1934-1991) was the author of two collections of poetry: Great Slave Lake Suite (1980) and Lee Sr Falls to the Floor (1991). He was the editor of the poetry journal Temblor, which ran for 10 issues during the 1980s.

Named for Leland Hickman’s unfinished, long poem, “Tiresias,” this volume, published by Nightboat Books, gathers all of the poetry published during Hickman’s lifetime as well as unpublished pieces drawn from his archives. With this book, Hickman’s work will join the landscape of twentieth century American experimental poetry. Los Angeles poet and editor Leland Hickman (1934-1991) was the author of two collections of poetry: Great Slave Lake Suite (1980) and Lee Sr. Falls to the Floor (1991). He was the editor of the poetry journal Temblor, which ran for 10 issues during the 1980s. Readers will include: Elaine Equi, Alan Gilbert, Pierre Joris, Bill Mohr, Stephen Motika, John Yau, Marjorie Welish and more t.b.a.

& here is Kevin Killian‘s review of the book from Amazon:

Nightboat Books got together with Otis Books/Seismicity Editions to produce this handsome volume of Leland Hickman’s collected poems, and you know, I can’t really believe this is happening! Two years back, at the Orono Conference in Maine, editor Stephen Motika spoke of his plans to edit a complete Hickman book; he, Motika, certainly is too young to have known Hickman personally or to have participated in the network of Southern California-based magazines Hickman edited. Perhaps he was the perfect person to take on this task then, but I wondered how he had stumbled onto Hickman’s writing at all. As the poet and scholar Bill Mohr explains in an informative afterword, the difficulty of establishing Hickman’s reputation lies chiefly in the very fugitive publication of his work, small presses, small editions, a circle of influence that was more interested in his editing projects than in his poetry perhaps. Timothy Liu printed “Yellowknife Bay” in an important anthology of gay experimental poetry, “Word of Mouth,” but that was about all of Hickman that was easily accessible.

As we discover, other reasons caused Hickman to put his own work on the back burner, and it sounds as though while we were all waiting for a successor to the one book, the “Great Slave Lake Suite,” Hickman was actually not writing much of anything at all. Editing Temblor and maintaining, in the days before e-mail, a vast correspondence with many of the world’s most innovative poets, ate up his time, and of course so did AIDS. Motika produces a few “new” pieces (of very high quality), but don’t go looking to this new collection for lots and lots of new material; instead the value of the book is twofold, it returns to print the major work of an interesting poet, and in addition it simplifies and makes legible by re-arrangement, the order and the valences of this work.

It is a prophetic, shamanic work fueled by rage, grief and sudden bursts of homosexual feeling. Hickman lived in a dangerous age in dangerous cities, and he was punished, imprisoned, institutionalized for his penchant for public sex. A private story makes itself felt through the densest and most lyrical parts of his poems, something to do with his dad, an intense Oedipal love hate thing like Raymond Massey slapping James Dean in Kazan’s film of East of Eden. In one excruciating passage the father strips the son to dowse him with a burning liquid to rid him of crabs, souvenirs of the teenager’s uncontrollable need for sex with strangers. Hickman’s poetry often seemed to me to be a queer amalgam of Ginsberg, Charles Olson, and something of Swinburne in him, a masochistic drive that spits the words out over the page (many lines begin with the single word “o,” not the uppercase “O” of Keats, but just a tiny little mouth remembering) and create a portrait etched in acid. And like William Burroughs’ wild boys, his memories seem to reach back to a prewar paradise of roadsters, red-tiled public toilets, outhouses with rattlers twisting in the Pasadena sun. The speaker derives power from the scopophilia that makes him anxious to see, to watch, the forbidden accidentally exposed, in a dramatic rehearsal of his own early abuse.

That makes Tiresias sound sensational, and Mohr advises us not to think of Hickman’s writing as “confessional” in any shape or form. Hickman’s sophisticated, alienated use of language allows him to revisit American trauma, by endowing the primal with a series of complicating screens and taxonomies. I don’t know, it still seems confessional to me, why there are even scenes of the child Lee Jr going to confession, confessing the sins of the child. “Absolve, absolve him.” This new book invites us into a dark wet cave where all the most exciting and painful things are happening all the time, awake and in dreams. Somewhere there’s a whisper, “sonny, hush, stop dwelling on it,” but the roar in one’s ears drowns out that quiet voice.

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Comment on “Leland Hickman’s TIRESIAS: THE COLLECTED POEMS”

  1. Back in the ’80’s I was fascinated, obsessed with Hickman’s poetry, but through a variety of circumstances, I lost contact with it and much of the poetry world that was so rich and alive for me then. I’ve been writing poems again, and recently while wandering through Powell’s in Portland, I found one lone (a rerelease, new release, no?) copy of “Tiresias” which I have been reading over and over; I’m thrilled and inspired and ever so grateful it’s out in the world — still, again, now.

    Linda Neal

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