TOPANGA MESSENGER -- December 2, 2004

"From the Shelves of Lobal Orning: Ern Malley—A Literary Hoax"

By Pablo Capra
Still from David Perry's film "The Refracting Glasses"

When Australian editor Max Harris read the typed coffee-stained sheets containing Ern Malley’s poetry that had been mailed to him in 1943, he knew that he had discovered a major poet.

Only 22, Harris had been a promoter of modernism in art ever since his school days. In a country that still despised writers the greater literary community had embraced a generation earlier, he caused much controversy with his avant-garde literary journal “Angry Penguins.” Once, he was even thrown into a river for declaiming his radical politics. But now, Harris’s struggles seemed to have finally paid off.

The 16 poems of Malley’s only completed work, “The Darkening Ecliptic,” were sent to him by Malley’s uneducated sister Ethel, who wondered if they were any good. She said she had found them in her brother’s room in Sydney after his unfortunate death from Grave’s disease at age 25.

Harris was awed by Malley’s powerful honesty and despair in lines like these from “Colloquy with John Keats:”

Like you I sought at first for Beauty
And then, in disgust, returned
As did you to the locus of sensation
And not till then did my voice build crenellated towers
Of an enteric substance in the air.
Then first I learned to speak clear; then through my turrets
Pealed that Great Bourdon which men have ignored.

“Malley was a poet of tremendous energy, a phrase-maker with no fear of obscurity, and able to manoeuvre a poem in several directions at once,” Michael Heyward writes in his book “The Ern Malley Affair.” “Malley gave the feeling that poetry was rich, rough, rollercoastering speech.”

Ethel explained that she had taken care of Malley after their widowed mother’s death. They weren’t close, and she had disapproved of Malley’s “wildness.” Malley had dropped out of high school to work as a garage mechanic, then moved to Melbourne where he eked out a living as an insurance salesman and watch repairman—and “might have got into some sort of trouble.”

Malley’s poor health exempted him from being drafted into World War II. He never talked with Ethel about his poetry, and had only briefly mentioned his failed romance with a girl in Melbourne—the “Princess [who] lived in Princess St.” from his “Perspective Lovesong.”

He returned to Sydney to die in 1943, passing away quickly at Ethel’s house on July 23.

Harris surprised Ethel by writing back that her brother was “one of the most remarkable and important poetic figures of this country,” and that he planned to devote his next issue of “Angry Penguins” to Malley. The issue came out in 1944, and was a touching tribute to the late genius.

But to Harris’s embarrassment, a few weeks after Malley’s poems were published, poets Harold Stewart and James McAuley made front-page news by declaring that they had created Ern and Ethel Malley as a hoax!

The hoaxers had become disillusioned with the direction modern poetry was taking under poets like T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and now the “Angry Penguins” journal in Australia. They felt that the Surrealist influence of the time was all effect, and had robbed poetry of any real meaning.

So in a single afternoon and evening in a Melbourne army barracks where they were stationed, they had mimicked the kind of modernist poetry that they despised, making it intentionally dense and meaningless, then mailed the result off to Harris to see if he could tell the difference.

The hoaxers crafted Malley’s unique voice from cryptic allusions, bizarre phrases, and lines borrowed from any books that happened to be around, which included the works of Shakespeare and a scientific report on mosquitoes. Their haphazard borrowing is most obvious in these peculiar lines from “Culture as Exhibit:”

Swamps, marshes, borrow-pits and other
Areas of stagnant water serve
As breeding-grounds ... Now
Have I found you, my Anopheles!
The hoaxers even poked fun at Malley’s nonexistence in lines like these from “Sybilline:”
It is necessary to understand
That a poet may not exist, that his writings
Are the incomplete circle and straight drop
Of a question mark

The name they invented for their modernist poet, Ernest Malley, played on the French word “mal,” and was another way of saying “truly bad.” It also evoked a sense of patriotism because it sounded like mallee, a type of eucalyptus.

But, strangely, their plan backfired. The hoaxers‚ methods of mocking Surrealism by being deliberately obscure and arbitrary ended up producing a kind of poetry that was deeply indebted to Surrealism. Instead of degrading modernism, Malley’s poems surpassed most modernist voices of the time.

It has been suggested that, by approaching the whole thing as a joke, the hoaxers were able to let go of their normal inhibitions and write with dazzling unbridled imagination. The masterstroke was the creation of Malley’s personality, which comes across so vividly in the poems. Instead of suspending belief when you read them, you have to keep reminding yourself that Malley is not real, as in this passage from “Petit Testament:”

In the twenty-fifth year of my age
I find myself to be a dromedary
That has run short of water between
One oasis and the next mirage
And having despaired of ever
Making my obsessions intelligible
I am content at last to be
The sole clerk of my metamorphoses.
It is something to be at last speaking
Though in this No-Man’s-language appropriate
Only to No-Man’s-Land.

Harris weathered harsh criticism and boldly stood by his original assessment of the poems, insisting that “the myth is sometimes greater than its creators.” But the revelation of the hoax wasn’t the end of his problems.

Two months later the police impounded the Malley issue of “Angry Penguins” on a charge that obscenities were hidden in the poems’ complicated language. Harris had to defend the poems in court, and was fined and further humiliated.

Considered the greatest literary hoax of the 20th century, the experience took its toll on Harris, and he was never again the daring modernist that he started out to be. Nevertheless, he continued to defend Malley’s poems until the end of his life.

A decade after the hoax, Harris wrote, “I still believe in Ern Malley. I was offered not only the poems of this mythical Ern Malley, but also his life, his ideas, his love, his disease, and his death. [The life of] someone knowing he is to die young, in a world of war and death, and seeing the streets and the children with the eyes of the already dead. For me Ern Malley embodies the true sorrow and pathos of our time. One had felt that somewhere in the streets of every city was an Ern Malley.”

As for the hoaxers, their friendship fizzled out shortly after the hoax, and both ended up becoming ardently religious. McAuley turned to Catholicism, and Stewart to Buddhism, moving to Japan for good in the 1960s. The hoaxers continued to believe that Malley’s poems were nonsense, but even though they published several books of their own poetry, they never regained the fame of “The Darkening Ecliptic,” which is now included in anthologies of Australian literature.

Ern Malley’s “The Darkening Ecliptic” has recently been reprinted in a local poetry journal called “Life as a Poet: Volume 7” (Brass Tacks Press), available at Lobal Orning. You can also buy it at

TOPANGA MESSENGER -- December 2, 2004

Artwork by James Mathers

THE MALIBU TIMES -- December 1, 2004

"The Artist's Dream"

Article and photo by Austen Tate

Lower Topanga draws artists of all kinds.

"What life have you if you have not life together? There is no life that is not in community" -T.S. Eliot.

Near the mouth of Topanga creek where Topanga Boulevard empties out onto the Pacific Coast Highway, hidden in the canyon filled with bamboo and yucca trees, lie the grounds of the "compound." The Rodeo Grounds was once a meeting place for the Chumash Indians and is now home to a community fighting to keep its art alive and its homes.

Meet the Idlers of the Bamboo Grove (the name of a book of poetry published by the community members): poets, painters, filmmakers, musicians, writers, and eco-conscious visionaries with a mystical flavor. The Lower Topanga community continues past the fork in the road and to the left a door with an old decaying rowing oar stamped Neptune. Inside, winds breeze by the Airstream trailer, an outhouse, old shacks now vacant, through the campfire where artists and their ancestors meet. Past the performance stage to the left, is a garage where tribal metal sculptures are made and to the right, the art studio where vibrant colors hang together as one-an artist's dream.

At one point, the ideal low-rent Topanga community for artists, families and elders consisted of 300 people, but a State Parks eviction (the state bought 1,659 acres in Lower Topanga in 2001 and plans to turn it into a park) has left less than 30 people remaining. The last standing family and friends of the Rodeo community have been there for years and worked hard to build and flourish a rural community of talented entrepreneurs who represent themselves.

Topanga has long been home to James Mathers, a painter who had a rise and fall in the '80s and now has hit the 40 mark. The artist explains himself "as a random piece of the L.A. art underground." Since then, he has continued to paint and write while encouraging a coterie of artists who look to him for help when the creative battle becomes too heavy. Here, in his studio, a temporal art scene can be experienced. By exploring the creative process the artists use each other as inspirational tools and conspire and create collaborative artwork. Day and night, Mathers and his disciples paint, document, photograph, dance, sing and traffic expressions of a new age art wave.

The dilemma they face-what will they do when they must leave? Alternative art spaces are vanishing and to find something within modest means is difficult. To express what they have and may lose, and to help raise funds, the artists are exhibiting their works Thursday, Dec. 2, at X studios, 1503 Cahuenga Blvd. (at Sunset), at 4:20 p.m..

TOPANGA MESSENGER -- October 21, 2004

"From the Shelves of Lobal Orning… Graphic Novel Review: 'Floating' by Robert Campbell"

By Pablo Capra

“Don’t get me wrong, Bud. I know there’s more to life than what meets the eye,” Sam tells his brother when the smoke from their campfire begins to curl up in a strange spiral.

And Sam is right! Unbeknownst to the teenage brothers, they are being pestered by two bickering spirits named Larry and Sal.

In Robert Campbell’s posthumously-published comic book “Floating,” there always seems to be a fantastic explanation for things that happen in reality. Campbell experienced life in the same way.

Campbell was featured in two previous Messenger articles, and is one of the poets included in the Lower Topanga poetry book “Idlers of the Bamboo Grove.” He was born in Marshall, Texas in 1951—a country town he liked to call “Mar’s Hall,” imagining that it had fallen from Mars. A visionary out of time, Campbell himself seemed to have descended from another planet. He called his artistic style “Real Fantasy” to emphasize the real effects of fantasy in our lives.

In the late ’90s, Campbell drew two graphic novels, both part of a series. The first one is untitled, and will be published at a later date. The second one is the “Floating” graphic novel, which is being published in two installments, “Floating” and “The More Ado about Floating.”

Campbell drew “Floating” in meticulous ballpoint pen shortly before he lost is eyesight to diabetes. His intention was to make one long story out of this graphic novel, but it was not realized before his tragic death from diabetes in May at age 53. Therefore, “Floating” is made up of many different stories, loosely related by Campbell’s fantasy of how intoxication can cause one’s head to float away.

Some of the artwork in “Floating” approaches painstaking realism, while other pages are more sketchy and have stains and cigarette burns. But the surreal stories in “Floating” are unlike anything you’ve ever read before.

Meet characters like Jamal Abernathy of Venice, the Rastafarian salesman of inflatables whose slogan is “Don’t wait! Floatate!” Jamal’s surprise creation is “the inflatable home, complete with furnishings and water purification.”

Then there’s the jobless couch potato with a spoon dangling from his neck (“no tellin’ when I might have to audition for a place in a soup line”) whose head floats up and away from a nagging wife to a space station where a kinky female captain subjects it to bizarre experiments.

And the downtown drug dealer who offers a stressed-out single mother some “Mary Jane, or Peggy Sue” to “patch that crack in your halo,” while her children beg for Butterfingers from the backseat.

And the five-eyed archer who claims to have developed a sixth sense from using cocaine, and demands above all else that people keep his forest clean.

And the farmer who goes out to hunt a flock of chickens that fly by in single-engine propeller planes.

And the untold story of Aunt Jemima who left her familiar place on a pancake box “sad in frustration, exclaiming, ‘I’m more than this’” only to reinvent herself as a supermodel in a leopard-print bathing suit.

These are stories that push the envelope of the comic book genre. They read like an African-American “Naked Lunch.”

After Campbell’s eyesight deteriorated, he turned to poetry to keep his creative flow going, but continued to explore many of the themes in “Floating.” A floating head reappears in one of his poems from “Idlers of the Bamboo Grove,” called “The Rebirth of the Frustrated Artist:”

in a puff of smoke she’ll come and go
vanish and appear
as your brain bloats and floats
beneath a bottle of beer

Two months before his death, Campbell published his own book of poetry, “Life as a Poet presents: Anesthesia Lake.” More collections of his poetry and comics are forthcoming from Brass Tacks Press.

All of Campbell’s books are available at Lobal Orning in the Pine Tree Circle. You can also order them online at

So pick up a copy of “Floating” and treat yourself to Campbell’s mysterious, magical, and humorous vision of the world—a place where, as another character points out, “Virtually anything could happen.”


"Robert Campbell (1951-2004)"

Article and Photo by Pablo Capra

In the May 20 issue of the Messenger I wrote a double-page spread (“Robert Campbell’s ‘Real Fantasy,’ Vol. 28 No. 10) celebrating the art and poetry of my friend, fellow poet, and Brass Tacks Press cofounder Robert Campbell.

It is with a profound sense of loss that I now report that eight days after that article was published Robert passed away.

I didn’t write about my friendship with Robert in that article, but I would like to say a few words about how I got to know him here.

In the mid-’80s, my father, art director Bernt Capra, went to a play with imaginative sets that impressed him so much that he decided to hire the hip young set designer with bleached hair who built them—Robert Campbell. So began their friendship and productive collaboration on several rock videos, TV movies, and feature films.

Some of Robert's credits include “Baghdad Cafe,” “Echo Park,” “Cold Feet,” and rock videos for Kenny Loggins, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Cyndi Lauper, Tori Amos, and Nirvana.

I was around five at the time, and enjoyed hanging around Robert during his extended visits when he would stay for months at my house. He was a short, funny, chubby man who I watched draw and paint in my backyard, and whose artistic abilities I grew up having a tremendous respect for. When I pictured an artist, I pictured Robert. I naively believed he was the best painter in the world.

In the mid-’90s, my father lost touch with Robert and we only occasionally heard about him through mutual friends.

Then, in 2000, he showed up at my father’s house out of the blue, looking totally different. I met him first, but didn’t recognize him until he said his name. My father and some of Robert’s other friends in our neighborhood didn’t recognize him at first either. He was skinny, dirty, missing teeth, half-blind, and had grown a disheveled beard.

Robert explained that he had been diagnosed with diabetes, but didn’t want to take insulin because it made him feel sick. He also didn’t believe that he had diabetes (Robert didn’t trust doctors), and would make up strange and nonsensical explanations for his health problems.

For example, he used to complain that he suffered from the side effects of other people’s drug and alcohol problems. Robert himself never drank or used drugs, except coffee and cigarettes.

Everyone was concerned about how he had been neglecting his health and appearance. According to Robert, one doctor had told him that his eyesight could be fixed with laser surgery, which we all advised him to get. But Robert worried that surgery would make his eyesight even worse. He also believed that having poor eyesight strengthened his inner vision.

He began to stay on and off at my father’s house again for long periods of time. During one of his earlier visits he brought over an extremely disorganized, messy, and beautiful graphic novel of more than 100 pages held together between two loose sheets of cardboard that he had recently had to stop working on because of his deteriorating eyesight.

Now, when Robert was visiting, he would often space-out, take naps, or smoke cigarettes in our backyard. Once I saw him scribbling in his notebook, and walked over to see what he had been writing. I was surprised to learn that it was a poem. It was really good and original, and I wondered if it was just a fluke. I congratulated Robert and typed the poem up for my family to read. Everyone else was impressed too.

After that, I began to type up everything he wrote and encouraged him to write more. He also encouraged me when I shared my own writing with him. I was impressed by how fast he could write, and by the surreal associations he would come up with.

By the summer of 2002, I had collected more than 50 of Robert’s poems. Whenever I submitted my poems to a magazine or literary journal, I always submitted Robert’s as well, but our poetry was always rejected. Frustrated, I asked him what we should do next, and he said that we should publish and distribute it ourselves in our own literary journal.

I asked my friend Richard McDowell to help us, and that summer the three of us created Brass Tacks Press.

In the almost two years since then, we’ve published 12 books featuring the work of various poets and artists.

Then, in late 2003, Robert impressed and inspired me all over again. I was hanging out with him at his home in downtown L.A. and I asked him if he could play the guitar that was leaning against his wall. I always knew that he considered his poetry as being close to music, but I didn’t think that he could actually play music. So I was totally unprepared when he picked up the guitar and started playing and singing a song he had written. Normally frail and spaced-out, he got into a groove as soon as he started playing the complicated melody. He played two more songs for me, and they all sounded great. Soon afterwards I started playing my guitar again, which I hadn't touched since high school.

Robert showed me that painting, poetry, sculpture, and music are just interchangeable mediums, and that a real artist is capable of using any of them to express his or her unique vision to the world.

On June 5, I went to visit him again at his home downtown (without calling first because he didn’t have a phone) and two grieving roommates answered the door. Something was wrong… but I was floored when they told me that Robert had died two Fridays ago on May 28—just over a month after his 53rd birthday.

Three Fridays ago I had gone downtown to bring Robert a laminated copy of my "Messenger" article about him, which had just appeared.

When I arrived at his building that day, I saw him standing outside on the sidewalk and greeted him as “the famous poet,” proudly showing him and everyone around us the article. I also gave him some of the first profits I had made selling copies of his new book, “Life as a Poet presents: Anesthesia Lake.”

Robert was extremely excited, especially because the title of the article (thanks to editor Dan Mazur) said in big letters “Robert Campbell’s ‘Real Fantasy.’” Real Fantasy was the name of the artistic movement that Robert had been trying to create his whole life. We hung the laminated article on his wall, and spent most of the day together celebrating.

According to Robert’s landlord, Robert had been drawing, writing, and hanging out with his downtown neighbors the night before he died. One roommate said that before he went to bed, Robert had complained to him about feeling bad. The roommate asked Robert if he wanted to go to the hospital, but Robert said no.

At 8 a.m. the following morning, Robert was found lying in the hallway outside his room by another roommate. The coroner identified the cause of death as diabetic ketoacidosis.

Robert's poetry was published by Brass Tacks Press in “Idlers of the Bamboo Grove: Poetry from Lower Topanga Canyon,” “Life as a Poet: Volumes 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6,” and in his own book “Life as a Poet presents: Anesthesia Lake.”

We were in the process of publishing his graphic novel under the title “Floating” when the bad news came.

Robert is survived by his brother Dock, sister-in-law Cherry, and nephews Rodney, Erick and Jeremy Herron in Oakland, California; his sister Janice Newton in Savannah, Georgia; and his mother Margaret Winn in Marshall, Texas.


"Robert Campbell's 'Real Fantasy'"

Article and Photo by Pablo Capra

One night Robert Campbell tossed and turned on top of the uncomfortable bulge of his wallet, which he had forgotten to take out of his pants pocket before going to bed. Half-asleep, he finally pulled his wallet out of his pocket and threw it onto the floor. But after searching everywhere for it the next day, it was nowhere to be found.

“I must have thrown it into a dream,” says Campbell, a surrealist. “Maybe one day I’ll find it again in a dream.”

Campbell stays on and off with friends in Lower Topanga, and has been a part of their artists’ community since the mid ’80s when he began collaborating on rock videos with some of the residents.

“Topanga reminded me of the rural areas and small country towns I was raised in. It became my oasis in the big city, offering ample space for my mind to wander. And the conglomeration of talented people who lived there made for a more creative headspace than I experienced in the so-called real world,” Campbell says.

Campbell is the latest poet from the popular collection “Idlers of the Bamboo Grove: Poetry from Lower Topanga Canyon” to have his own book published by Brass Tacks Press.

His book’s title poem, “Life as a Poet Presents: Anesthesia Lake,” begins by describing his ethnicity, which is one-eighth Native-American:

He was a black man
had Scotland in his name
and a Cherokee pow wow
burned brightly in his veins.

Campbell was born in Marshall, Texas in 1951 and began drawing and painting at an early age. He also had a talent for football, and regretted being unable to pursue a career in it because of his short skinny build. In college he won an art scholarship, but dropped out his junior year and never received a degree.

He came to Los Angeles in 1975, where he showed in art galleries, painted faux finishes and trompe l’oeil on many prominent walls throughout the city, and worked as a scenic painter in the theater and movie business. Some of his credits include Baghdad Cafe, Echo Park, Cold Feet, and rock videos for Kenny Loggins, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Cyndi Lauper, Tori Amos, and Nirvana.

Campbell calls his artistic style “Real Fantasy,” emphasizing the fantastic in his own take on the school of Fantastic Realism—although he is capable of painting perfect realism.

“The pyramids can’t compare to the freeway,” he says, expressing his unusual perception of how the world today is more fantastic than ever before.

The title of the poem that his book is named after, “Anesthesia Lake,” refers to an allegorical place in the fantasy world that Campbell has created in his art and poetry. Some other allegorical bodies of water in his fantasy world are Tranquillity Lake, Mercy River, and Whiskey River.

He first dabbled in poetry in the late ‘70s while trying to come up with rock songs to play on his guitar, but was discouraged from becoming a musician by his own shyness and soft voice.

In 2000 his eyesight began to fade. Unable to draw and paint like he used to, he started writing poetry again to keep his creative flow going.

Today, he is a prolific poet who writes everything in large letters with a permanent marker. However, he still draws cartoons by putting his face very close to the page. He also still refers to many of his poems as “rock songs,” and occasionally plays one on guitar, or collaborates with a musician friend to make songs out of others.

Alongside the other Idlers poets, he has done readings of his poetry at Rose Alley Theater, Village Books, Howell Green Fine Art Gallery, Lobal Orning, and Beyond Baroque.

One interesting distinction between his poetry and his art is that he has no real education or influences in poetry. He basically taught himself to write poetry by listening to the lyrics of his favorite music, especially Motown ballads and the psychedelic ponderings of Pink Floyd. Therefore, his poems sound fresh and unaffected by the history of literature. In addition, the scarcity of his influences makes for a voice that is unpretentious, personal, and totally natural.

But just like his art, his poetry is surreal and full of pop culture references. Revolving around specific symbols and myths of his own creation, his poems often read like nursery rhymes for adults:

from “The Halfwit Lament”

he wonders where his memory went
held in suspense of the next moment
the gods took it out to play frisbee
Snap! Crackle! Pop!
Rice Krispies!

Campbell is the main character in his books’ many introspective poems. However, his poems also feature an elusive mystery woman who reappears in moments of longing, and who seems to be a cross between an old flame and a fabled enchantress:

from “Anesthesia Lake”

She was from Palenque,
or Teotihuacan,
or up along the green hills of
Monte Alban,
she came to America
one summer in June
when the trees were heavy with fruit
and the jasmine was in bloom
she came with the art of enchantment
she had learned since age two
the things she’d learned in dreams
from the Pyramid of the Moon.

Although his poems tend to be long, they are usually written at high speeds. Sometimes he claims to hear them as songs in his head when he wakes up in the morning, and finishes writing them down before lunch. A few of the longest poems in his book were written in less than an hour.

Once when a friend told Campbell that it was impossible to find rhymes for the words “purple” and “orange,” Campbell effortlessly answered him a few minutes later with a poem that begins:

from “Purple and Orange”

The eternally fertile totally verbal turtle
affectionately aware that another liquor store binge would turn him orange a la mode
hopped in the back of a blue-back Cadillac
that hurried on down the road
and on leaving he’s receiving
impressions from Mars
as his head begins to float
evanescing with the stars.

Of the Rodeo Grounds in Lower Topanga, and the regrettable relocation of many of its residents by State Parks, he writes:

from “Rodeo Grounds Last Spark of Eden”

though some believe it has dried up
I’m convinced it has just left for a season
to collect more angel and fairy stuff
Rodeo Grounds, the last spark of Eden

“Robert is a visitor to this earth,” joked former Lower Topanga resident Gustav Alsina, pointing out Campbell’s spacey nature while expressing admiration for his art. The two worked together as scenic painters.

Lower Topanga resident and art director Bernt Capra confirmed this, saying, “Whenever I hired Robert, I had to baby-sit him to make sure his beat-up VW van was running and everything else was in order, or he wouldn’t show up to the set. But once he got there, his artistic abilities were unmatched. He could do anything in the visual arts—from painting and sculpting, to designing and building sets.”

Always standing with one foot in the fantasy world that he paints and writes about so beautifully, Campbell never seems to lack inspiration. However, he often wonders about the “loose screws” that put one in touch with that other world, and the way they make one appear in this one:

from “A Lewd and Ludicrous Woman of the Dawn”

You’re all over town
those crazy things that you do
you really get around
you’re so full of loose screws
that sure makes you seem dumb
but you’re a jewel

Sometimes Campbell absentmindedly leaves loose pages uncovered after a morning of writing outside in Lower Topanga, and the wind scatters them across the lawn. At least one of the poems in his book was only found again days later, in the bushes.

Campbell currently lives in, and oversees, a movie sound stage called Glaxa in downtown Los Angeles, which he painted inside and out. He sleeps in a converted make-up room under a big mural of Louis Armstrong, his bathroom has a mural of Adam and Eve, and the walls of the sound stage are covered in trompe l’oeil architecture.

Inside the sound stage, prefabricated sets of a cafe, a bar, a concert stage, and a restaurant wait to be rented out to film crews. When not in use, the empty dimly-lighted sets serve as a backdrop for Campbell’s own surreal visions.

In addition to painting and writing poetry, Campbell has done several comic strips, and two graphic novels drawn in meticulous ball point pen.

“Floating,” the title of one of these graphic novels, is due out some time this year by Brass Tacks Press. Drawn shortly before his eyesight deteriorated, “Floating” is a surreal comedy about the problems caused when a new recreational drug actually makes people’s heads float off of their bodies.

Campbell’s book, “Life as a Poet presents: Anesthesia Lake,” collects his contributions to the first five volumes of the Life as a Poet poetry series, which he helped found in 2002.

“Campbell’s poetry draws its images from the public consciousness without sounding clich├ęd. In spite of its surreal structure, it beckons for a simpler time,” said Life as a Poet cofounder Richard McDowell.

Campbell dedicates the poetry in his own book to “the awareness of the deadbeat syndrome that weaves its subversive threads throughout society in general.”

"Life as a Poet presents: Anesthesia Lake" by Robert Campbell is for sale at Lobal Orning in Topanga Canyon, and at Village Books in the Pacific Palisades.

To order it online, go to the Brass Tacks Press website at

"Dedicated to all the dead unknown poets," the "Life as a Poet" series puts together group shows of different poets who are given the space to express themselves in ten poems each.


"Topanga Poets Published"

by Pablo Capra

Two poets from “Idlers of the Bamboo Grove: Poetry from Lower Topanga Canyon” published their first solo books under Brass Tacks Press in March, “Life as a Poet presents: Anesthesia Lake” by Robert Campbell, and “Life as a Poet presents: Death Eats the Words that I Don’t Write” by Pablo Capra.

With “The Lowered Bucket” by David Hayward, published last year by Brass Tacks Press, this makes three Idlers poets who now have their own books.

See P. 12 for more on Robert Campbell’s book “Life as a Poet presents: Anesthesia Lake.”

Pablo Capra’s book, “Life as a Poet presents: Death Eats the Words that I Don’t Write” also collects his contributions to first five volumes of the Life as a Poet poetry series, as well as his poetry from Idlers of the Bamboo Grove.

Capra was born in Vienna, Austria in 1979, and currently lives in a greenhouse next to his father’s house in Lower Topanga where he grew up. He went to Malibu high school and UCLA, graduating in 2001 with a degree in American Literature. He is 6’ 7” tall, doesn’t know how to drive a car, and is afraid of dogs.

Capra’s poetry is personal and straightforward. The subjects he writes about most are love and his desire for transcendence through art. The following excerpt is from “This Girl is Getting Bored of Me:”

Finally she says, “You know, Pablo,
You don’t have to be so uptight.
Loosen up, live a little, life’s not that serious.
Sleep less, make a mess, wear a dress,
Be frivolous....
Nothing’s that important.”
My answer is obvious:
“Everything’s that important!”

David Hayward’s book “The Lowered Bucket” presents an overview of his poetry, including his refrigerator magnet poetry, and his poetry from “Idlers of the Bamboo Grove.”

Hayward was born in Winchendon, Massachusetts in 1940, and moved to Lower Topanga with his wife, Joy, in 1960. He is a husband, father, grandfather, professional trumpet player, astrologer, and massage therapist. As a musician, he worked with Sonny Rollins, Stan Kenton, and Janis Joplin.

Hayward’s poetry is thoughtful, humorous, and often reveals his deep love for astrology and music. The following excerpt is from “On Ballads:”

Poems are to prose
what ballads are to other tempos.
The tendency to over speak
kills the soul of a ballad.

All three books are available at Lobal Orning in Topanga Canyon, and at Village Books in Pacific Palisades. For more locations check the

TOPANGA MESSENGER -- April 22, 2004

"The Passing of Princess"

by Pablo Capra
Photo by Bruce Dath

Princess, a horse known to many from the moving cycle of poems written by her owner Bond Johnson in Idlers of the Bamboo Grove, died on April 2 at age 34.

As Bond’s poems relate, he was forced to live apart from Princess after his house burned down in the Malibu fire of 1993. Fortunately, horse-lover King Zimmerman agreed to let Princess live with him in Lower Topanga.

“Where else would a Princess live / If not with a man called King?” Bond writes.

In a sadly prophetic moment, King told Bond “It’s only a trial, / But you know, Bond, / She’ll likely still be here / When I die.” King was killed by a hit-and-run driver while crossing Pacific Coast Highway in 2002. Shortly afterwards, State Parks relocated all of King’s tenants except Princess.

Princess endeared herself to several Lower Topangans. In addition to Bond’s poems, she appears in the poems of David Hayward and Catherine Holliss, who says that she decided to move to Lower Topanga after meeting Princess. In part, Princess became a symbol of Lower Topanga, and the stress of having to leave.

In April 2003, Bond built a small corral, then walked with Princess from Lower Topanga all the way to his home at Malibu Lodge, just past Tuna Canyon on PCH. But spurred by homesickness, the old horse tried to walk back to Lower Topanga when no one was looking. Bond found her unharmed on the PCH, and brought her back to her new corral, “As close to the old place / As we could get.”

Princess lives on in Idlers of the Bamboo Grove: Poetry from Lower Topanga Canyon, available at Lobal Orning. Below is one of Bond’s poems from the book:

"Soon Enough Now"

(For Princess)

Soon enough now
The water in the corral will be dry
And there will be no need to fill it.
Soon enough now the grain cans
Will rest unopened,
Then be turned out for the birds.
Soon enough now the sun
Will cross the whole sky
Looking for a horse
Whose brown coat
It can dapple with shadows of Sycamore leaves,
And find only the empty earth
Where she used to walk.
So in these autumn days,
Let us banish
All who would scorn the mystery of such things.
Let us live each day left
With full hearts and open eyes,
So that when the end comes
We will know
That nothing
Stood in the way
Of us and the love we shared.


"A Palisadian Jazz Poet Speaks"

by Caroline Ryder
Photo courtesy of David Hayward

A decade after Beat author Jack Kerouac prophesized the American "rucksack revolution", Dave Hayward, a talented young jazz musician with a taste for liquor, found himself right in the middle of it. It was 1970 and the 28-year-old musician was touring the country with Janis Joplin and her hippie entourage, riding the wave of the new counterculture. But unlike Joplin, Hayward had little time for flower children. "I did the sixties hard-core but I was never a hippie," says Hayward, who has lived in the Palisades since he was a child. "I never shared those values. I was more of a libertarian, if anything. For me, those times were just about the music."

Dave had been playing the trumpet since he was a teenager, and got his first real break at 24. Completely inebriated, he somehow managed to persuade jazz legend Sonny Rollins to let him play with him. "He was playing a show in Hollywood and I was there, totally loaded," remembers Dave. "He took a break and I went up to him and asked if I could stand in. I would never have done that sober. It's like asking God if you can stand in for him." But Rollins was impressed by his enthusiasm, and invited Dave to join him for six months, playing venues in New York City. The two remain friends to this day. "It was the single greatest musical experience of my life," said Hayward. "If you had asked me at the age of 16 who I would die to work with, it would have been Sonny Rollins."

Hayward went on to tour with big-name musicians including The Righteous Brothers, and was asked to join Joplin's band in 1970. By then, the "phoniness" of the hippie movement was already starting to grate. "They thought it was very chic to hate anything ‘conventional'," he said. "But behind the peace and love slogans, there was violence and elitism, which I hated."

Even though Joplin was an icon of the movement he despised, they became friends - thanks to their shared love of booze. "She and I were the only alcoholics in the band," explained Hayward, who has been sober since 1974. "But she would always take things to the extreme."

When he heard she had died of a heroin overdose six months after they finished the tour, he wasn't surprised. "We used to worry about something like that happening," he said. "I remember she'd do her sound check in the afternoon, and her roadie was always wondering whether she'd O.D. before the evening's gig."

Over the years Hayward found himself drawn to other art forms, especially poetry. "I'm a musician, and I started to realize that all great poetry has music in it," he said. He was inspired by the poetry of WH Auden and Dylan Thomas, joking "they were alcoholics, just like me." After publishing some poems with the Topanga Poets, he recently put out his own collection, a 51-page book called "The Lowered Bucket". He will read from it at Village Books in the Palisades this month, in a collaborative reading with poet, pacifist and – dare we say it – peacenik John Harris.

"I suppose you could say I'm a hippie," said Harris, founder of the Venice Poetry Workshop, LA's oldest poetry workshop, who fostered a generation of Los Angeles writers as a mentor and publisher. He also ran famous bookstore ‘Papa Bach', a hub for Conscientious Objectors during the Viet Nam War. "Dave and I do have our differences in opinion when it comes to politics and so on," said John, "but we do have a lot of things in common – jazz and poetry. That's all you need."

Dave Hayward and John Harris appear at Village Books (310 454 4063), 1049 Swarthmore Ave., Pacific Palisades, Thursday April 8 at 7.30pm in celebration of National Poetry Month.

An Excerpt from "Clatter"
A poem from "The Lowered Bucket" by Dave Hayward

I'm simply a bucket in a hole
Banging my way up and out
In to the light.

Musician, poet, joined at the root, sessile
I rattle and splash my way back
To pure expectancy;
Non-being, out of reach.

THE MALIBU TIMES -- March 25, 2004

Photo by Baretta

HOPEDANCE -- March/April 2004

"Topanga Canyon: A Legendary Artists Community's Struggle to Survive"

by Amy Landau

The longtime residents of an extraordinary artist community in Topanga Canyon are currently facing what may be the threat of their lives: imminent eviction. Once a vibrant artist community of 120 residents forming one of the last outposts of the ’60s hippie bohemian lifestyle, the community has now diminished in size to 40 courageous holdouts. They do not battle an easily recognizable culprit like a real estate or strip mall developer, displaying obvious signs of monetary greed. Rather, their battle is with none other than the California State Parks, which bought the property in 2001 from the Los Angeles Athletic Club, the previous owners for 50 years. On the surface of the matter, the community’s eviction may incite one’s sympathy more than outrage. However, one need not look far to uncover a much more troubling picture, one that cries out for the public’s attention.

I first stumbled upon the community of Lower Topanga in mid-November last year when I had the fortune to attend a fascinating party in one of the main neighborhoods, known as the Rodeo Grounds. After descending a windy road through the lush Santa Monica Mountains toward the ocean, my companions and I took a secretive turn onto a rough, broken road that led to the grounds. Behind a latched wooden door, we found a charmingly rustic world I didn’t think possible within such close proximity to the chaos of Los Angeles. At the party, people actively shared their passions, improvised new songs around a fire, played music, danced to a DJ and lounged in a wood-stove-heated art studio. The edgy urban sensibility and out-of-bounds creativity of the people within such an unexpectedly wild setting struck me as rare and delightful. However, I soon learned that this jewel of a community was on the brink of extinction and that what I witnessed was only a taste of the community in its former glory.

An assortment of neighborhoods lying at the border of Malibu, Lower Topanga stretches from Topanga State Beach to the first two miles of Topanga Canyon in an area characterized by frequent flooding from Topanga Creek. Its residents have rented their low-cost houses from the Los Angeles Athletic League on land considered undevelopable because of its location within a low-lying flood plane. Although the people rent their homes, they more closely resemble toughened homesteaders than modern tenants. Their unique lease arrangement stipulates that they must be responsible for all repairs on their homes without outside assistance. Thus, they confront flood, fire and earthquake routinely. Consequently, their identification with their homes and fellow community members is strong. "Everybody has wonderful war stories," says Beth Van de Wouw, a resident of 10 years. "People with shovels and sand bags. People help one another. Your house is a living entity."

The declared motive behind the actions of State Parks is to restore the land to its "natural state." They claim that their intention is to connect the coastal region to Topanga Canyon State Park in the mountains. However, residents are quick to point out the difficulty of negotiating a path from the coast to the mountains: a hiker has yet to tackle this feat. Furthermore, State Park’s plan for the removal of all plants deemed non-native would account for approximately 80% of the flora. Bernt Capra, a longtime resident and accomplished art director, is actively fighting the evictions in court. He describes the State Park’s mission as a futile attempt to turn back the clock in order to recreate a Jurassic Park fantasy-land. He argues that the 500-year-old-past cannot be recreated without bringing back the bears, wolves, and other natural predators to the area. Weeding out the non-native plants itself would be an endless, nearly impossible operation.

Bernt believes that the State Parks have a much less ethical plan up their sleeve: to do business with developers. Developers have always had an eye on Topanga Canyon, wishing to build a strip mall, for example, along the Pacific Coastal Highway, yet it has remained essentially rural until recently, because of prohibitive costs. The State Park’s decision to purchase such expensive land leads to suspicions that they intend to recoup costs through a lease with developers. "The New York Stock Exchange is a non-profit," Bernt declares, pointing out the myth behind the non-profit designation. In his belief, State Parks are merely a business, wanting to increase their cash flow like any other. As a ring leader in the current struggle, Bernt remains resolute in his determination to keep his community intact and remain in his home. "We are like Jiminy Cricket in ‘Pinocchio,’… the conscience," he says, referring to the character who points out the wrongs of others. "They don’t want us here."

Historically, Lower Topanga had significance to the Chumash who recognized the area as a sacred economic and cultural meeting place. In the 1800s, the Rodeo Grounds served as an actual rodeo arena for a Mexican ranch; in the early 1900’s, a Japanese fishing village. Finally, the houses of the residents in the 1950s (many of which are now boarded up or demolished) were built as weekend beach shacks, for actors like Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Charlie Chaplin, Carole Lombard, and Ida Lupino. "There are stories that Peter Lorre and Bogart used Herb’s house as a weekend retreat place where they’d have their mistresses and what have you," said James Mathers, a resident painter and writer, referring to the now vacant home of his friend Herb Bermann, also a writer. Clearly, the region has a long and unique heritage of undeniable cultural significance. "And strangely, it’s been allowed to exist in this kind of state," mused Mathers, calling the area an "anomaly" amidst the belt of multi-million dollar homes extending from San Diego to Santa Barbara. "I can either say that’s good luck, or that it wants to be like this."

Although the community in question only encompasses 2% of the total parcel of bought land, State Parks has mounted an aggressive policy to uproot its occupants, bulldoze their homes and reshape the land according to its own particular ideals. Arundo, a type of Bamboo that has come to define the landscape, has become a pivotal point of controversy to parallel the peoples’ own struggle. One of many plants considered "non-native" by State Parks, the plant has been condemned for removal by means of herbicide. The original herbicide in use, Round Up, contains Glyphosate, a cancer-causing agent hazardous to humans. Residents and environmentalists have fought the plan with varied success. Aside from the complete disregard for the health of the community, some residents are dismayed by what they view as the destruction of a familiar and treasured plant. Pablo Capra, a poet, journalist and publisher, feels particularly strongly on this issue. "This plant in particular, I feel very connected to, and it just seems to me like the most native plant to this neighborhood. Because I grew up here, I used to climb them." He grieves the loss of the memorable Arundo tunnels that are now reduced to refuse along trails by State Park contractors. Although the plant originated in Asia, Pablo says its non-native status is by no means universally-regarded. The question of what to consider native to the land, whether it be people or plants, is at the heart of the Topanga Canyon conflict. Pablo, the publisher of Idlers of The Bamboo Grove, a collection of works by local Topanga artists, arrived upon his title with precisely this parallel in mind. He and other residents fought to block the use of herbicides and won an agreement with State Parks to halt herbicide activity through the end of 2003. However, the agreement was broken recently, when an independent contractor working for State Parks was spotted in the act of spraying herbicide to poison another "non-native," the castor bean.

The daily struggle to remain in their homes and confront officials of the State has taken a harsh toll on the well-being of the residents. Many suffer from depression at the thought of losing their homes. Most notably, the struggle resulted in the tragic loss of three people, Arthur King Zimmerman, John Fowler and Jerry Greenwood who died from causes their loved ones directly attribute to the stress and threat of eviction. The Pacific Relocation Consultants (PRC), who were hired by State Parks in 2001 to assist residents in finding comparable living situations largely failed in their attempts, namely because no such equivalent living situation exists. Coliene Rentmeester, a resident of 22 years, came to live here for the tranquility and natural beauty that Lower Topanga offered. "I like it here and I don’t know where to go. There’s nothing around, not in a comparable situation. You have to be a very rich person." Katherine Groomer, a resident of 30 years, says she has looked everywhere but found nothing comparable to her home. "Everyone lives under a constant threat. The stress is a form of torture," she complains. Trailer parks have been proposed as relocation homes to residents, falling far short of expectations. Contrary to rumor, no cash-in-pocket has been offered for compensation. Instead, residents have been offered the option to accept one of three "comparable" houses with the difference in rent paid for a period limited to four years or a modest sum for a down payment on a house (i.e. trailer) but no assistance to pay off mortgages. The unsatisfactory efforts of PRC may have reflected a conflict of interest because public records uncovered by the community’s lawyer revealed that monies left over from relocation would go toward employees’ salaries. State Park’s decision to remove the relocation consultants from office in December suggests PRC’s failure and the triumph of the 40 holdouts who resisted relocation for more than two years beyond the deadline.

Although some of the holdouts are uncomfortably resigned to their fate, others are fiercely determined to fight to the end. Beth Van de Wouw, whose house became an unexpected legacy from her husband’s grandfather, vows that she will climb the palm tree outside her window and refuse to come down, should the officials come to evict her. "I’m not just fighting for me, I’m fighting for this family," she states. Bert Capra too, remains one of the most cheerfully defiant of the bunch. He considers State Parks his landlord and cites precedents (such as the Trippet Ranch in the 1970s) in which rentals were allowed to cohabit peacefully the State Park land. He strongly believes in the success of the community’s quest for survival.

One can only hope, for all our sakes, that he is right. The artistic contributions and love of the land that distinguish the community are striking testimony to its value, as is its role as a rare and much-needed conscience for the world today.

THE MALIBU TIMES -- February 12, 2004

Photo by Baretta

THE MALIBU TIMES -- February 5, 2004

"Flower's from Topanga"

Photo by Baretta

Jeanbatiste, an artist who lives in Lower Topanga, walks among his "Flower Lamp" sculptures, a new series he plans to exhibit soon. Jeanbatiste also builds "one-of-a-kind furniture" for mostly Malibu clientele, including John Paul DeJoria, owner of Paul Mitchell Systems.

TOPANGA MESSENGER -- January 29, 2004

"Book Review: The Children's Guide to Astral Projection"

by Pablo Capra

Lower Topanga artist James Mathers was tired of mainstream books with mystical themes but no real information about the occult (i.e. Harry Potter), so he came up with The Children’s Guide to Astral Projection in an attempt to actually teach children how to leave their bodies, explore other dimensions, and hang out with immaterial beings.

The back cover of The Children’s Guide, which Mathers wrote and illustrated in comic book form under the pseudonym “J.A. Homes,” reads: “This handy guide will introduce children to their own out-of-body experience, and equip them to express their own private vision of the threshold between this earthly dimension and the Astral Plane.”

Mathers describes the Astral Plane as “the natural domain of children, poets, and young creatives.”

Mathers wrote the The Children’s Guide” specifically for children because he believes that they are more open to new ideas. But the book is not dumbed-down for children.

“I make no apologies for the complex ideas that are presented here,” states the foreword.

“Awareness of the Astral World is a gift,” Mathers writes. “Not unlike musical ability, athletic talent, or a powerful mind, it can be developed and explored, or ignored and neglected, while it slowly fades into the background of our busy lives.”

When I ask Mathers what his experience with the Astral Plane is, Mathers says, almost surprised by my question, “It’s the same as yours.”

According to Mathers, everyone interacts with the world on an astral level whether they know it or not.

Mathers believes that our bodies are actually designed for Astral Projection.

“It’s part of our standard human equipment, and one of our most powerful spiritual tools,” Mathers says. “But because of a bias in our collective perception, Astral Projection has sadly been pushed to the fringes of the human experience.”

A Topanga native, Mathers moved to New York City after graduating from high school to pursue a career in painting. Since then he has traveled extensively, and lived for four years in Dublin, Ireland, one of his favorite cities. He is currently one of about 40 remaining residents in Lower Topanga Canyon whom State Parks is forcing to relocate.

In addition to painting, Mathers passions include writing, filmmaking, and poring over maps and diagrams of various spiritual hierarchies.

“There’s no way to talk to most people about the Astral Plane without giving the perception of mental or emotional disturbance,” Mathers says. “The main purpose of all my delvings into the spiritual realm is to create a language to describe this stuff.” The Children’s Guide is his latest attempt.

“It’s the book I wish I had when I was a kid.”

The Children’s Guide is the first comic book to be published by Brass Tacks Press, a small press founded in 2002 by three local poets. Brass Tacks Press also published Idlers of the Bamboo Grove: Poetry from Lower Topanga, which Mathers illustrated and contributed poems to.

The Children’s Guide sells for $3.33 at Lobal Orning in Topanga, as well as at Hi De Ho Comics and Midnight Special in Santa Monica. It can also be purchased online at

Older Articles

About Me

My photo
Los Angeles, California, United States
Official website at