Scott Wannberg was the first poet I ever knew. We met in a dorm room in Mary Ward Hall on the San Francisco State campus, both of us high, no doubt, and giddy with the energy of having appointed ourselves young acolytes of the Word. It was the fall of 1975. Though I was only a freshman and he was in the MFA program studying with Stan Rice, he treated me like an equal. I knew almost nothing about poetry. My idea of it was pretty much confined to the whimsicalities of e.e. cummings. It’s safe to say that meeting Scott changed my life, dramatically.
It’s rare, I think, when one can point to a single event, a instant that defines one for good. When Scott stood up – he was an imposing figure: tall, fleshy, stoop-shouldered, with a shaggy mop of hair, sweating no matter what the temperature was – and began declaiming in his soft, rapid, slightly monotone but urgent cadence, the libretto to Pound’s “Canto LXXXI,” some basic code mutated at the root level. It’s no exaggeration to say that nearly everything I’ve done since has proceeded out of that moment.
Ere the season died a-cold
Borne upon a zephyr's shoulder
I rose through the aureate sky
I had no idea, of course, what any of it meant. Who Waller and Dowland were I would soon discover, combing through the library, while ABC of Reading propounded Pound’s argument that after Chaucer English poetry had drifted into a doldrums that only Golding's translations of Ovid finally rescued it from. (This kind of heretical counter-canon making was head-spinning stuff for the uninitiated). I didn’t even recognize that Pound’s deliberate archaisms were archaic. Which plagued my earliest efforts at poetry, a fact Kathleen Fraser kindly drew attention to in her workshop. But it was the music that drew me in, its huge sweeping tides washing over me.
Pound was not the only poet Scott introduced me to. Williams, Eliot, and Dylan Thomas, were part of the cascade. Each searing, each pivotal, in revealing the possibilities of poetry. But it was Scott’s boundless joy in them, his sensitive, passionate reading and engagement with them, and his own example of wildly fecund permission, of letting words fly where they may, that blew the doors off the hinges for me. Not that anything I wrote then was remotely good. It was only a beginning.
Each week, like a pied-piper of bohemian culture, Scott led a small merry band of us to the art houses in the city to see Fellini, Bergman, Truffaut, Carne, or Kubrick’s anesthetized epic, Barry Lyndon. Along the way, he was a non-stop compendium of high-low cultural citationality. Strother Martin was as important a figure to him as Pound or Williams. (I regret we never saw The Wild Bunch together; it wasn't until years later I finally viewed it). Being with Scott was expansive, blistering, tornadic, and finally, exhausting. Yet, in the middle of the whirlwind was an incredible kindness and a compassion for the least, the lowly and the suffering.
After that heady year, Scott returned to LA and Venice. We lost touch and I didn’t see him again till the early 90s when I ran across him at the legendary Dutton’s Books in Brentwood. (Ironically, I’d worked at its sister store on Laurel Canyon, run by Dave Dutton, a few years earlier without ever getting wind of this). By that time I was working in the movie business and had begun shifting from the poetry of Charles Wright and Mark Strand to Susan Howe and Michael Palmer. Scott, it seemed to me, had stayed true to his neo-beat origins, continuing to mine that vein even more deeply. It was entertaining, energetic work, long on comic schtick and short on the more lyrical and cerebral qualities I’d come to prize. After all those years we had little to say to one another, but it made me happy to see him spinning dervish-like in the flux of citational associations. He was still a galvanic spirit, ebullient and enfevered for the life of the Word.
What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage