“Swagger and braggadocio conjoined with a deep and abiding vulnerability” – Heroin Haikus / In the Enemy Camp (Selected Poems 1964-74) by William Wantling

ww1and2First, a confession: I had not, until very recently, ever heard of William Wantling. He arrived on my proverbial scene with a package from Tangerine Press containing a very small but beautifully produced collection called Heroin Haikus. It’s about twenty pages long, could probably be read from one side to the other in about half an hour. It’s tagged, some seventeen syllable comments and has ‘original drawings’ by a guy called Ben Tibbs. What I did was: I read quickly, I Googled, found some stuff out, then re-read. And re-read and re-read.

William Wantling lived quite a life. Born in East Peoria in Illinois in 1933, after high school he joined the marines and ww1served in Korea. Upon leaving the marines, he moved to California, married and had a kid and then went to prison for forgery and narcotics. His wife divorced him and took custody of the kid. After prison, he returned to Illinois, got himself educated and ended up a college professor until his untimely death in 1974 which some put down to his extensive drug use. The poems in Heroin Haikus largely concentrate on the addiction that led to his stay in county lock up and then San Quentin.  They snap and pop and fizz and bang. Here’s one (accompanied by a terrific illustration, see right) called ‘The Bust’:


“A knock, the door

flumps down

Shotguns, the heat screams

Freeze, you dirty dopers!”

Wantling’s brevity here reminds me of that famous Hemingway six word novel (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” ). You can see it throughout Heroin Haikus, the mixture of swagger and braggadocio conjoined with a deep and abiding vulnerability. Check out “San Quentin -1”:

First day on the Big

Yard. Two shankings, a

race riot

and no letter.”

It resonated with me in the same way that reading Bukowski and Fante did decades ago. I had to know more. I contacted Tangerine Press and they were good enough to send me In the Enemy Camp, a larger collection subtitled Selected poems 1964-74. Again, a fast first read, with words jumping out at me and shining. Here’s a good example:

“So true you knew it was so true
That your head held a hot true

Flame & you ran outside shaking
Your head & shouting yes yes yes

My god yes, that’s the way it was!”

There are more haikus here, brilliant in there acuity, such as:

I don’t want to say goodbye

but I think it is being said

for me.”


“If only life

would remain thus

the dawn

the cool grass

I inside you.”

There are poems here that read like Denis Johnson (check out “A message to Hemingway”), poems full of beauty, poems full of sass and wisdom, poems that examine shortcomings as well as any poem Ray Carver ever wrote, poems about Korea, jail, drugs, love, the universe, poems that are reflective, keen, poems that turn a stern eye on themselves. ‘Poetry’ is a great example of this last:

“I’ve got to be honest. I can

make good word music and rhyme

at the right times and fit words

together to give people pleasure

and even sometimes take their

breath away – but it always

somehow turns out kind of phoney.”

You might read that and think discount Salinger; or you might read that and remember what it was like to read Catcher in the Rye for the first time and think, as I did, reading this feels like reading that, provides the same spark and punch.

I could go on and I could say more but I think the poems speak for themselves. In the Enemy Camp comes with introduction by John Osborne and foreword by Thurston Moore. Thurston says,

“his work continues to have a sentient effect for the very real reason of how great it was.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Any Cop?: These books feel like steps 1 and 2 on the road to the Complete Wantling. The Complete Wantling is a book we would like on our shelves, a book we would part with serious money for. Come on Tangerine Press, sort it!


One comment

  1. To answer the ‘complete works’ question: Tangerine put out Only in the Sun and The Fix, a two volume celebration of Wantling’s poetry in 2008. Long out-of-print and published in varying handbound, hardcover editions, copies are swapping hands for around £100-£250 on the collectors’ market

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