Self-portrait, Culver City, 2014.
© Viggo Mortensen.
Before there was the current pre-release Oscar buzz for Green Book, before there was that scene in Eastern Promises or that Oscar nomination for Captain Fantastic, before there was the epic cult franchise The Lord of the Rings or his imminent star turn and writer-director debut in Falling, Viggo Mortensen was a passionate young poet, a prolific painter and a naturally gifted photographer.
Before he was ever cast as Aragorn, he was already a publisher [sic] as well, having founded Perceval Press to support L.A.'s art community with unique art books, poetry and audio projects. He still does all of that, putting out his own and others' titles and making new art in every spare moment, of which there aren't quite as many as there used to be.
And even earlier, like way, way back before any of it, Mortensen was a fixture at Venice literary arts hub Beyond Baroque, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and honors him along with poet Will Alexander at its benefit gala and art auction on Saturday, Nov. 10.
"I first heard about Beyond Baroque in the mid-1980s from Exene, and from John Doe and Dave Alvin," Mortensen recalls. That would be Exene Cervenka of the band X, a visual artist herself and Mortensen's ex-wife, and her X bandmates. Their son, Henry, now 30, is very involved in the arts and in the book company. "It was when I moved from New York to Los Angeles," Mortensen says. "Once installed in Venice, I started going to the Wednesday Night Poetry Workshop, which has been running nonstop since the founding of Beyond Baroque in 1968. At the time I started attending the workshop, Bob Flanagan was often the moderator. He was an important writer, performer, and a great teacher.
"If anyone wants to try their hand at performing their poetry in public," Mortensen adds, "or simply wants some useful feedback as a writer, no matter what level they are at, I strongly recommend they head to 681 Venice Blvd. on any Wednesday night at 8 p.m.
"I met and listened to all kinds of fine poets, musicians and performers there," he recounts. "The members of the legendary Lost Tribe and the Karma Bums, and poets S.A. Griffin, Doug Knott, Michael Bruner, Mike Mollett, Scott Wannberg, and sometimes Bobbo Staron and Ellyn Maybe. They stand out in my memory. FrancEyE (that's how she spelled her name), aka Frances Dean Smith, was someone I also admired a great deal from my time in the Wednesday Night workshop," Viggo adds. "She was a very good poet and a true original Venice person. She was also one of the kindest, most aware people I have met anywhere."
Beyond Baroque also is home to an amazing collection of chapbooks and small-press publications. "The place is a treasure trove of poetry from the last half-century," Viggo says. "Many nationally renowned poets have read there over the years, including Amy Gerstler, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, Wanda Coleman, Raymond Carver, Dennis Cooper and too many others to mention. Of all these fiercely original voices, the one I was probably most impressed by was Scott Wannberg, who was astonishingly prolific, consistently brilliant, and had the best sociocultural antennae I've ever witnessed."
Perceval Press has published three books of Wannberg's poetry. "Exene has often mined similar terrain as Scott did with her singular brand of wordplay, achieving equally thought-provoking results," Viggo offers. "These are just some of the poets whose work I have been inspired by at Beyond Baroque."
Without doubt, stories from those heady mid-1980s Venice times could fill a library, an iPod and a gallery many times over, but the 50th anniversary seems an especially apt time to look back, and Viggo is kind enough to walk us a little way down a literary-minded Memory Lane. "There were many great readings on the weekends at Beyond Baroque, and some of us from the workshop read in
small venues all over town — from Venice to the Valley and beyond," he says.
"Musicians and poets mixed freely and performed together at these events. I even remember one short-lived, satellite workshop in the late '80s that included John Doe, Michael Blake, Exene and myself, which we called the 'Desk Squad' — a play on words in opposition to the infamous Reagan Administration-supported death squads in Central America at that time."
Mortensen recalls a two-year period in the early 1990s during which he regularly recorded every Friday and Saturday night poetry reading at Beyond Baroque with a DAT recorder. "A lot of good poets are on those tapes," he says, "which I believe are still there somewhere in storage, in some boxes. Maybe they should be downloaded into some more reliable, modern archival format..." [Editor's note: Yes, please do that.]
Mortensen isn't the only one who maintains ties to the Beyond Baroque scene. Painter Lucas Reiner has been on its advisory board since the late '90s, along with other board and council figures like Chris Kraus, Diane Silver, Simone Forti and Bob Branaman; and Reiner too cites his early experiences there as formative. "My favorite thing about Beyond Baroque," Reiner tells us, "has been the exposure over the years there to poets, film screenings, musical events that were unique because of the entirely personal way that content is presented there. I remember Tosh Berman screening Joseph Cornell's films and Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar. Mind-blowing to see for the first time! Richard Hell reading poems to a room of 12 people, incredibly memorable. A lively symposium about the Black Panthers before Boyz N the Hood was released. Malokio playing incredible noise music at a memorial for Laurence Weinberg. There were so many events that I witnessed at Beyond Baroque that were always connected to a person or people and their process, not just product."
The current administrators of Beyond Baroque see the occasion of its 50th anniversary as not just an occasion to celebrate but a chance to bring back old friends and family, and to diversify the base of support so it can go another 50 years. To that end, the Beyond Gala: Bohemian Bacchanal is an open house, to bring the city of Los Angeles to the theater, the gallery, the grounds, and let them experience the range of musical and performative artistry for themselves — along with a curated art auction organized by Juri Koll and Andrew Schwartz offering works by Ed Ruscha, Shepard Fairey, Raymond Pettibon and others.
Beyond Baroque director Richard Modiano credits Mortensen with "critical support in sustaining us, in 2010, when I was faced with reorganizing the center at a time when revenue was lower than ever before." Modiano says. "Many funding sources had dried up and I reached out to Viggo for help — which came immediately. To me Viggo is a poet foremost — I know his work from the days of Cafe Iguana and the Onyx Cafe; and of course he polished his poetry chops in the Wednesday Night Poetry Workshops."
And, as mentioned above, Mortensen is still writing, maybe more than ever. "All the time," he says. "In recent years I have been living mostly in Spain, so I've been writing and doing readings in Spanish over there." He has a new collection of poems called Lo que no se puede escribir (What Can't Be Written) that is going to print shortly. And he's still making art and taking photographs, drawing and recently making quite a few paintings. At the start of 2019 there will be another book published that includes many of those. He's even had some conversations with galleries and museums about showing photography in Europe next year.
I had first encountered Viggo and his art in the context of some exhibitions and related publications, at Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica and at Stephen Cohen Gallery in West Hollywood. In both cases, one particular aspect of his process that stood out in our conversations was his habit of bringing a camera everywhere — including to set and especially on location. The weirder the better; he observed it all in stride, behaving as an interpretive documentarian, often with extraordinary and exotic, evocative, surreal experiences, people, scenes and settings to portray. From epic and ghostly desert landscapes that happened during Hidalgo to quick and dirty self-portraits in the driveway of a printer's gallery for a show I was curating called "Looking Glass" at Digital Fusion back in 2012, Mortensen moves through the world always ready, and always paying attention to the details.
Lately, he's repaired his analog cameras and has gone back to shooting film. "Nothing against digital photography," he says, "but I love those old cameras, and I love film. I took some photos during the Green Book shoot, but not that many. We were too busy filming that story's road trip for me to stop and take pictures on a regular basis. But I have been shooting a lot of landscapes lately. When I am in a new city, I always try to sneak away from my press duties to see art exhibitions. But when I can't manage to do that, I'm happy just taking in the landscapes I'm lucky to see on our journeys."
Green Book is indeed a road-trip movie, set all through the American South, based on the true story of Tony Vallelonga's and jazz legend Don Shirley's friendship. Dr. Shirley hired Tony (aka Lip) to drive him and act as his bodyguard on a tour of the Deep South for The Don Shirley Trio. Tony's son Nick Vallelonga is one of the writers and producers of the film; he grew up knowing the men and their story. The Negro Motorist Green Book for which the film is named was originally a New York–area travel guide, disseminating essential information on safe places to stay, eat and even safer routes to take, published from 1937 until 1966.
So aside from the overall intrigue of such a compelling true story, and the chance to work with the radiant Mahershala Ali, what was it that most attracted Mortensen to the project?
"It is one of the finest original screenplays I've ever read," he states. "Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie and Pete Farrelly managed to balance sparkling dialogue, often very funny scenes, a road movie and a sociopolitical cautionary tale in an inspired, dramatically satisfying true story about an unexpected friendship. They made a very difficult writing task look easy. I feel fortunate to be part of this movie."
And Viggo has been paying special attention to the craft of screenwriting himself lately, too. He'll begin shopping an original screenplay he wrote, which he plans to direct and star in as well, this week at the American Film Market in Santa Monica. Is there any doubt someone will pick it up? It's called Falling and Mortensen describes it as "a father-son relationship, which I plan to turn into a movie this winter. We plan to start shooting in February, although we did some filming in August and October in order to have summer and autumn images for some of the story's flashback scenes. The script was inspired by my memories of my father and mother, both of whom passed away during the past couple of years. It is a fictional story, though, and my recollections of them and of my childhood only served as initial inspiration to get me started with the writing."
And how was that writing process different from poetry or prose? "It still calls for a certain amount of discipline in terms of structure and rhythm, like poetry and prose do," he says. "But there is a lot more dialogue in the screenplay. I enjoyed writing that, finding the individual voices of the characters."
Speaking of individual voices, the Beyond Baroque gala honors another poet along with Mortensen. "Will Alexander is, in my opinion, a genius poet," Richard Modiano says. Alexander is a native Angeleno with some three dozen books to his credit, from small presses to major publishers such as New Directions and City Lights Books. He received the American Book Award for Poetry in 2014, followed two years later by the Jackson Prize for Poetry. Modiano says, "He is our poet in residence and is receiving Beyond Baroque's Lifetime Achievement Award for his brilliant body of work, not only as a poet but as an essayist, visual artist and playwright."
Modiano recounts telling young poet Tongo Eisen-Martin that Alexander was Beyond Baroque's poet in residence. "Tongo answered, 'Will is the poet in residence of the cosmos.' And if you know Will's poetry," Modiano says, "you know how apt that statement is."
Somehow, despite his jam-packed, Green Book–related press schedule, Mortensen will be able to attend the Beyond Baroque gala. "I'm very glad that I'll be able to attend," he confirms. "Fifty years is an important milestone for a cultural meeting place that has encouraged and inspired so many fine writers. I look forward to seeing a number of poets I've not heard from for a long time." And of course, to see his son, Henry.
Among other things, Henry shares his parents' and their community's love of poetry books, and he's involved with Perceval Press as well. So what is going on at the imprint these days? "We are hanging in there," Viggo tells me, "now into our 17th year. Among our upcoming titles, I am especially looking forward to publishing a comprehensive collection of Kevin Power's poetry. He was one of the most discerning critical voices regarding North American poetry from the 1970s, '80s and '90s, and had a particular appreciation for the work of Robert Creeley and the Black Mountain College circle of writers. What is not as well known is that he was an extraordinary poet himself."
Viggo still makes time to be hands-on in the publishing process, and artists who have worked with him in the past all tell the same story — he's a perfectionist with a flair for dramatic beauty. Lindsay Brice, a photographer and longtime friend of the whole Mortensen-Cervenka clan and beyond into the worlds of punk, fine art and counterculture, recalls the putting together of her Perceval Press book as a process of careful empathy for her art and for the prose as well.
"Viggo meticulously edited my Perceval book, Supernatural, and I'm pretty sure he does that personally on every Perceval book," she says. "Supernatural includes the Flannery O'Connor story 'A Temple of the Holy Ghost.' He scrutinized every word, every punctuation, every space throughout the process all the way to last looks for final printing. [As an editor] he evaluates whether his knowledge of many languages affects his choices in spelling and syntax. He is a perfectionist publisher."
Painter Georganne Deen also published one of the early titles of Perceval Press, along with Brice, Lola Schnabel, Rene Ricard and Mortensen himself. "The circumstances are so fucking wild and hilarious," Deen says, "I can't repeat them! The book, Season of the Western Witch, was ridiculously elaborate and included a CD of music and spoken word. Viggo contributed some sounds here and there — a wolf howling — and Thurston Moore added some feedback to a poem or two. We were very relaxed about it all but Perceval went out of the way to make the book sublime. It was a crazy undertaking."
After 17 years, Perceval Press is still making its magic. There have been some very interesting new titles recently — including Viggo's own 2017 projects in both books and CDs. And he promises there is more to come. "Yes," he says, "along with titles by a variety of artists, I have continued to put out recordings I've made with Buckethead, Henry Mortensen, D.J. Bonebrake and Travis Dickerson, as well as occasionally publishing my own photography and poetry. I had not put out a photo book for several years until the recent Ramas para un nido (Branches for a Nest). Lo que no se puede escribir will be my first book of new poetry since 2009."
I wonder if it's fair to say that his time at Beyond Baroque — especially the mashup of literature, art, and music — was a direct inspiration for Perceval? "Not that I am immediately conscious of," he tells me, "although I guess my approach to editing and publishing was no doubt partly inspired by Bob Flanagan's example as a facilitator of spoken-word, as well as by the work of other artists I've been exposed to at Beyond Baroque. I've been interested in different artistic mediums — photography, poetry, painting and drawing, and music — since I was a boy. Because Beyond Baroque's doors have always been open to a wide range of artists, and the place has actively encouraged an interdisciplinary approach, I suppose that the time I've spent learning there has only served to further inspire me to continue trying my hand at a variety of storytelling and documentary efforts."
Reiner echoes those sentiments about the influence of Beyond Baroque across disciplines. "That was at a point in L.A. history," he says, "when there weren't many small presses and it was exciting, that the only literary arts foundation was trying to fill this need for writers and readers. At the time, the books and programming presented ideas beyond what was offered elsewhere. As L.A. was struggling to become a world culture center, Beyond Baroque was at the vanguard, providing a roadmap for how culture can connect an institution to a community. Beyond Baroque was really the pioneer in so much of what came after and so much of what we see today."
And it seems we not only have Viggo in part to thank for Beyond Baroque, but we have Beyond Baroque to thank, in part, for Viggo.