Scott Wannberg: The Poet Laureate of Facebook

[deck]Social media kept poet Scott Wannberg alive in the hearts of friends, even long after his death.[/deck]

This story was published on August 19, 2012, one year after Wannberg’s passing.

“Strange movie full of death / asks us to play ourselves / as the front door falls face first / onto the floor.”
-Scott Wannberg, Strange Movie Full of Death

[cap]T[/cap]ake out a matchbook and strike a match. Set fire to a candle. Watch the flame coming off of the wick and let it represent all of the intensities and passions of human life.

It burns and burns until suddenly the fire runs out, just as life runs out. The only thing that remains is the wisp of smoke in the air. Sometimes, the candle burns out far too quickly and we simply aren’t ready. All we can do is recant on all of the places that the light has touched.

Scott Wannberg is someone whose light was his passion, and his passion was his poetry. His fire was his word, and kept him alive. His unique poetic style had an unusual wordiness that inspired many. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, poet friend Rip Rense said Wannberg sang with a voice most comparable to a “stream-of-consciousness kind of Chick Hearn-meets-Charles Bukowski”. His tender perspective on the world highlighted his life. Wannberg was able to influence every single soul he met in some way—my own included.

Day in and day out he woke up and taught the universe to dig the power of the word. It was just one month before I moved to Oregon in September of 2011 for school that we were supposed to meet in person for the first time.

By then, it was too late. Wannberg’s candle had flickered out.

“Had he come along in the ’50s, with Kerouac and Corso and all those guys, he would be a legend today,” Rense said in an interview with The Washington Times shortly after Wannberg’s passing. “Maybe he still will be.”

Wannberg’s impact made him a central character in his unique Los Angeles environment, where he eventually became friends with individuals such as Viggo Mortensen (who published two of Wannberg’s books, including Strange Movie Full of Death and the posthumous release of Tomorrow Is Another Song), Randy Newman, actor Ed Harris, musicians Peter Case and Suzanne Vega, and even actor Dustin Hoffman.

Wannberg made many of these connections while working at Dutton’s Books as a clerk and book salesman. One frequent patron of Dutton’s was film director David O. Russell, who even wrote Wannberg a part in I <3 Huckabee’s. In the late 1990s, Los Angeles Magazine named Wannberg one of the ‘Top 100 Coolest People In The City.”

The Carma Bums in 1991 during their Start From Zero Secret Tour of Words. From left to right (back, standing): Doug Knott, Mike M. Mollett, Scott Wannberg, Bobbo Staron. From left to right (front, kneeling): Michael Bruner, S.A. Griffin. Photo by Jay Green.

He made other connections on the road when he traveled the West Coast to perform poetry with The Carma Bums, whose work can be best explained in this video by poet friend S.A. Griffin, which features Wannberg. Together, he and the poetry group traveled as far north as Vancouver and as far east as Atlanta. For them, poetry was not a profession, but a lifestyle. Favorite gigs included highlights like a trip to Big Sur, in which the Carma Bums played the redwood forest at the Henry Miller Library. Wannberg and company frequented diners and bookstores across America, getting kicked out of hotels and sleeping on floors for almost twenty years.

By 2009, however, things began to slow down due to logistics and the cumbersome cost of living. Just like that, their road trips ended and the group dispersed across the country.

After concluding his poetry tour, Wannberg’s health deteriorated. He was permanently attachment to an oxygen tank, making travel difficult. In 2001, his mother died. The following year, Wannberg watched his father, and housemate of thirty years, slowly begin to die as well.

Wannberg’s sleeping patterns turned irregular and disruptive, leading him to break his foot while sleepwalking. When a doctor recommended surgery to fix his foot, he agreed, but an unforeseen viral infection from the procedure kept him inactive. It took Wannberg several months to recover, even spending five weeks in 2006 at a nursing home in Santa Monica where he developed a lifelong staph infection. Anxiety caused him to compulsively overeat, and he gained 100 pounds on top of his already 300-pound frame.

He had lost his rhythm. He needed to do something to get it back.

[cap]A[/cap]fter much deliberation, Wannberg had decided to escape to Florence, Oregon in 2008, where he had family he could stay with.

On the advice of friend S.A. Griffin, Wannberg began to write poetry again. This time he had a new place to publish his work: Facebook. With a limited physical capacity and nothing but time to kill, Wannberg began to network on the social site. As Facebook took off in popularity, so did he.

“(Facebook) didn’t save his life by any stretch—don’t I wish—but it more than likely did help to keep him alive just a bit longer, for which many of us are eternally grateful,” says Griffin.

For many, this is where their story with Wannberg began. Through social media, he gathered a devoted group of over 4,000 fans and followers. To a number of them, Wannberg became a mentor.

Wannberg posing with Lorraine Perrotta on February 20, 1997 during his 44th birthday party in Los Feliz. Photo by S.A. Griffin.

Vickie Trancho, an assemblage artist and close friend of Wannberg, found him on Facebook after discovering his poetry online, and first met him in person in November of 2009.

He loved the fact that young people asked his advice,” Trancho says. “He wanted mentoring to be an important part of his legacy. If he could encourage anyone, young or not so young, he did, but his hope for the future is their generation.”

Trancho was not alone. Natalie Case, daughter of Los Angeles musician Peter Case, was equally inspired. “He gave me tips for live reading when I was nervous once. I felt so much warmer having that advice and those kind words with me,” Case says. “It was fantastic for me as a growing writer to have Scott there to talk to, about my writing and his writing and just about whatever was going on in both of our lives.”

In my own life, Wannberg was a burly, mythical figure who existed in mountainous pastoral Oregon. In my mind, he was as eternal as the stars. He found me online some time in 2009 and sent me a friend request after noting that he had been friends with my old English teacher. Shortly after our friendship began, he became my own de-facto poetic mentor.

Although  I never even had the opportunity to meet him in person, I truly believe that Wannberg was a prophet walking among us. To me, he felt three feet taller than any other living creature . . . and three light-years wiser.

While many people criticize social media for breeding isolation and loneliness, Wannberg surpassed all of that and exposed the initial intention of these platforms: to bring us together.

Solace indeed is a good room to hang your clothes up in . . .  and your human reaction just helps me to keep tapping my head’s feet that much more,” Wannberg wrote to me in November of 2009. “Thanks beyond thanks . . . what I’ve read of yours has as well sung to me.”

Our final conversations were about my college plans. “Oregon awaits with large open arms and tunes,” Wannberg wrote. “Am I like grinning that you’ll be matriculating like maybe 75 miles away from me here . . . amazing.”

[cap]I[/cap] remember the day that Wannberg left us.

He gave and gave to everyone that came to him for advice or help. He danced and sang and wrote and delighted and was delighted himself. He wrote to the rhythm of music and created pictures with his words. I never thought anything would be different, until one day I woke up and he didn’t. In August of 2011, at 58 years old, Wannberg died of natural causes related to his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Everyone dies.

I can tell myself this half a million times. But how do we desensitize ourselves to the fact that the fire runs out for everyone? How do we accept it and move on with what lives we have right now?

Wannberg taught me many things. He taught me to be true, to be sensitive, to inspire. He told me to make art until the fire burns out, to learn to love the road and appreciate the “smell of the nice coffee breeze going by in the unilateral moment of music that we are all made of.” Above all else, he harnessed this transcendent spiritual mumbo-jumbo. He understood art and the importance of poetry to himself and to others.

“Lots of empathetic folks came to me when the readings were over and told me it meant much to them,” Wannberg once told me, referring to a reading he did about his mother’s death. “Sometimes poetry does seemingly matter.”

Wannberg’s fire may have flickered out, but memories of the places that his light touched are powerful enough to illuminate cities.  The way he taught countless souls to dig the power of the word is immense, even if much of it took place online.

“Even today, people post on his Facebook wall often,” says Trancho. “He is missed by many. He is remembered by many. Facebook seems very quiet these days.”

3 thoughts on “Scott Wannberg: The Poet Laureate of Facebook

  1. Bob Wannberg

    Thank you Bryan for this wonderful writing about my Brother Scott. He would be very happy and I am confident he is looking down upon you smiling! Thank you again!!

  2. Rip Rense

    A very fine tribute to a very fine human being. One quality Scott had in vast abundance is a quality that is punishingly lacking in today’s self-obsessed world and popular culture: empathy. May his work continue to stoke and inspire empathy and all the good that comes of it. (One small note: my quotes were made in the Los Angeles Times, not the Washington Times.)

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