L.A. based poet Scott Wannberg died of a heart attack this summer. That was a little over three weeks ago, on August 19, 2011. He was 58 years old.
I didn’t know Scott well — we were only casual acquaintances. Back in the 1970s, he was one of the many young poets I read with in the bars and bookstores in Long Beach, California. In those days, he was a quiet, shy, retiring kid who I only vaguely recall. The one thing I do remember about him is that his poems were unique — not at all like what the rest of us were writing (mostly influenced by Charles Bukowski in nearby Los Angeles.) Scott’s poems were funny, surreal, eccentric, loaded with references to monster movies and other pop culture themes. However, they didn’t have the kind of noir cynicism and grittiness that we’d learned from Bukowski, and thus were easily dismissed as being “light” by the slightly older group of poets I was involved with. Scott sort of blended into the background in those early days, and I — to my loss — did not pay much attention to him. Big mistake. I really wish I had paid attention from the start.
I left Long Beach for good in 1982 and forgot all about Scott Wannberg until I ran into him again in San Francisco in April, 2007. I was attending a reading at the Beat Museum featuring a couple former members of the legendary traveling poetry group, the “Carma Bums.” The Carma Bums included S. A. Griffin, Scott Wannberg, Mike Bruner, Doug Knott, and Mike M. Mollet. The group I saw read that day included Griffin, John Dorsey, David Smith, and — to my surprise — Scott Wannberg. They called themselves Sal Mimeo & the Process, and printer/publisher Bill Roberts accompanied them.
I was amazed by the Scott I saw read that day. He had blossomed, grown, become a fully realized artist. He read highly inventive, articulate poems, with incredible energy and wit. He was like a hurricane blowing from the stage. A fury of words and ideas and images. The quiet, meek kid I had known in the 70s was now a force to be contended with. We talked briefly, and I quickly realized that Scott had been very busy all those years. He had become a major figure in the L.A. literary scene. He was, in fact, something of a star. I was stunned that I had not seen this coming, had not sensed what he had inside of him waiting to come out.
After that day, we became Myspace “friends”, and almost daily I saw new poems and comments posted on his page. I regret that I was usually so busy I only read the first few lines of them, thinking I could always come back later and read the whole thing. We may have exchanged a few emails or messages on Myspace, but I put off starting any in-depth conversation with him, again, thinking I could do that later.
Not long afterwards, Scott ended his long time career as a book buyer at Dutton’s in Brentwood and moved to Florence, Oregon. Florence is a sleepy, windy town of weathered motels and sand dunes on the southern Oregon coast. It’s one of my favorite places on earth. Frank Herbert’s novel Dune was inspired by the dunes of Florence. I think Scott landed there because he had family (an uncle?) in the area, and therefore someplace to live. He had health problems by then, and his Myspace posts referenced feeling poorly on some days and better on others. Florence is not all that far from where I live, maybe a three-hour drive, and I had this fantasy in the back of my mind about visiting him some time, interviewing him about the old days in Long Beach, and how he got from there to where he was now. But that never happened. I waited too long, and now he is gone.
Life’s like that. You often don’t know how good something is until it’s too late. In the weeks following Scott’s death, I’ve reread his poems in the few books of his I have (one signed by him at the Sal Mimeo event), watched videos on-line of him reading, talking, playing the clown, and I say to myself “the man was a genius, and I didn’t even know it.” He also was, according to all witnesses, a great, generous, kind soul, open to all. He’ll be missed.