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Scott Wannberg, a key figure in Los Angeles poetry, has died

August 22, 2011 | 11:25 am

Scott Wannberg, who was one of the anchors of the poetry scene in Los Angeles in the 1980s and '90s, died at his home Friday in Oregon. He was 58 and had been in poor health.

In addition to writing and reading poetry, Wannberg knew a wide range of Los Angeles book lovers from his two decades as a bookseller at Dutton's Brentwood. In 1987, Jack Miles, then-books editor of The Times, called Wannberg the "poet laureate of Dutton's"; in 2008, T.C. Boyle lauded the bookstore and dubbed Wannberg "one of the true literary zealots of our time."

As a poet, Wannberg was prolific, freeform and Beat-influenced. He was a founding member of the self-named Carma Bums, which included S.A. Griffin, Mike Mollett, Doug Knott and Mike Bruner. The Carma Bums cruised to readings around town in a 1957 Cadillac and also toured the Southwest together. But left to himself, Wannberg took the bus. "If I was lucky enough to own an automobile," he wrote in The Times in 1991, "I would probably not have enough money for the insurance."

Plagued by health problems and on disability, Wannberg moved to Oregon in 2008. "The expense and pace of Los Angeles, he couldn't keep up with it any more," said David Smith, a friend and fellow poet. Of his loss, he says, "there is a huge stone in my heart." Smith met Wannberg at San Francisco State 35 years ago. "Whether he indended to or not, he mentored an awful lot of writers. He pulled a lot of us into poetry."

Writer Rip Rense profiled Wannberg for The Times in 1995. "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. He sees the rose and the three-legged cat all the time. He must write." Rense attended Venice High School with Wannberg, who back then was "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. He couldn't help himself. Somewhere along the line, he damned the stream and started capturing the words on paper, found he couldn't stop, then enrolled at San Francisco State University and majored in creative writing (translation: poetry). This, I think, was essentially a device to facilitate writing as many poems as possible while earning a diploma."

Wannberg's book "Nomads of Oblivion" made the L.A. Times bestseller list in October 2000. His next book will be published by Viggo Mortensen's Perceval Press, which has posted two of his recent poems on its website.

"The genuine article, Scott was one of a kind, a larger than life American original; the stuff of myth and legend," writer and friend Griffin wrote in an email. Griffin, a working actor, had published some of Wannberg's books. Smith called Wannberg "the John Lennon of small press poetry."

Although Wannberg's health problems made it difficult for him to travel -- he used an oxygen tank -- he had been connecting with an online community in recent years. "It helped keep him going," Smith says. Wannberg had more than 4,300 friends on Facebook, many of whom have left goodbyes on his wall.

His life and work will be celebrated at Beyond Baroque on Sept. 17 at a barbecue beginning at 3 p.m. "This is a party!" the literary center blogs. "Let's send him off with a noise they can hear in heaven and beyond."

In 1993, Wannberg told The Times, "If humanity had the big answers, it would probably stop scratching under its underwear and actually take time out to smell the nice coffee breeze going by in that unilateral moment of music that we are all made of. Because people are just too hung up on not listening to the music that actually is there. If they had the answers to the big questions, they could follow the music to the dance hall that never closes."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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