To: The Membership and Interested Parties
From: Chinee, Grand Poobah NBBPS
Subject: Prehistory, History, and Future of the NBBPS, Part Two
THE NEW BLACK BART POETRY SOCIETY
Its Prehistory, History, and Future
(delivered on October 3rd 2012 by Grand Poobah Emeritus Pat Nolan on the occasion of the inaugural meeting of The New Black Bart Poetry Society At Susan Ryan’s River Reader bookstore, Guerneville, CA )
A self review in the first “unauthorized” issue of Life Of Crime gives a fairly good idea of what our stand vis-á-vis the literary world was at that point of time. We eschewed labels but were only too eager to pass them out.
As newsletters go, Life Of Crime isn’t all that different. It indulges in gossip mongering and sheer innuendo, playing connect the dots with what it finds written between the lines to sketch out the literary landscape for those too lazy or uninformed to do so themselves. You can count on Life Of Crime to engage in literary opportunism as well. If reviews in other publications are self-serving, the one in Life Of Crime are automatic. Along with the usual guff, generous portions of ill-disguised contempt for the literary establishment are dished out; Life Of Crime resists respectability and predictability every pica of the way, staying at least a couple of paragraphs ahead of the literary lawyers, nourishing itself on second guessing and conjecture. The art of literature is a constant vacillation between an extremely clever con job and a bonanza of literate gems. Life Of Crime is like yelling “fire” in an empty theater. At best, it is like the sensation at the nape of your neck that tells you there’s a man with a gun behind you. This is a stick up.
Feeling that we had to live up to our outlaw roots, Steve Lavoie and I used the bully pulpit of the Society’s newsletter to launch spitballs at the greater literary world or the world of greater literature as the case may have been. Who would be the first to feel the sting of our scathing diatribes? The literary establishment? Boring. And besides, too easy and large of a target. But we needed practice, to sharpen our aim, and so we picked on our friends. They could take a joke (or so we assumed). We sent out an open invitation to those who might want to join the fun. To our surprise, we got takers. An air of jovial camaraderie prevailed and everyone got a kick out of saying things they didn’t mean like they meant them (if you know what I mean). We sniped at friend and foe alike. We were always on the lookout for targets. Someone would shout “a whale! a whale!” and we were ready with our lampoons. There were those who thought that, because they knew us, they would be safe from our barbs. Wrong. Everyone was a fair target including ourselves. In fact, self-parody was probably our most practiced skill. You can’t be serious was the unofficial (nothing was ever official) editorial guideline of the newsletter. We would not be serious nor did we want to be taken seriously. Not being serious is harder than you might think, and being taken seriously is chillingly simple, particularly by the simple minded.
We were both admonished and cheered by our friends. Some said that we were going too far, that we were being irresponsible, that we were so much more intelligent than that (as if intelligence had anything to do with it), and that we were coming off as incredibly bitter. But did we listen? If we had, I could stop right here. The cheering was louder. Crazed invectives were arriving by the mail bag reeking of an intoxicating blend of rattlesnake venom and wild mushrooms (really wild mushrooms). Once you see the humor in everything, you get to laugh. But too soon the silliness took on a life of its own. Axes were brought to grind. The simpering rivalries skulking around in the collective literary unconscious can be stirred to life by the simplest, most ineffectual of breezes. Grudges were brought to bear. People wanted blood. They were ready for a throw down (metaphorically speaking, of course). We were confident that our take-no-prisoners style of editing would be able to turn serious dirt, no matter how vindictive, into silly putty. After all, we were psychic surgeons par excellence, and if need be, we were ready to replace bile with a funny bone. Unfortunately, the transplants didn’t always take as we found out too late – what we were trying to fix was too complex, too deeply entrenched.
As an example, in the late 70’s and early 80’s there was a serious epidemic in the Bay Area literary community. Quite a few writers became serious. There was suspicion (later confirmed) that it was spread by college boys, dour frats, career academicians. They had the gospel, the final word, and if you weren’t in you were out. For that, you had to be serious. And with their proselytizing and holier-than-thou attitude, they made many people unhappy and rubbed folks the wrong way – self-righteousness has a way of doing that. It was only a matter of time before there was a reaction, in print. The excess energy created by the so-called Language Wars naturally found its way to our pages (as it would a low spot). Nonetheless, we continued to receive anonymous gossip that could not be made funny no matter how hard we tried, though it did qualify as dirt. The hidden agendas were coming to light and revealed was a load of nasty crap. Dog shit is the stream you never want to step into again, to paraphrase an ancient Greek. But, inevitably, you do do.
If Life Of Crime was a paper chimera, the mission of The Black Bart Poetry Society as it was originally conceived, to promote poetry events in interesting and unusual locations, did so on one particular occasion, and with flair, panache and substance that astounded the Bay Area literary community. In May of 1983, the Society held a membership drive and benefit at the On Broadway in San Francisco. The On Broadway was a large venue music hall upstairs from the punk rock night club, The Mubahay Gardens. The event was videotaped by a professional video crew using, for that time, state of the art available-light cameras. Images of the poets reading were also projected onto a giant screen on stage behind the performers. The featured poets that day were Joanne Kyger, Bob Kaufman, Darrel Gray, and Alan Bernheimer, with Andrei Codrescu calling in his participation by phone from Baltimore. In between the live acts, taped readings from the archives of the San Francisco Poetry Center were projected onto the giant screen. Also billed were surprise guests, accusations, confrontations, prepared statements, and food. The entire eight hour event was wrapped up with live music featuring Alastair Johnston’s impromptu band Girl Scout Herring. For a couple of guys who put out a funky mimeo rag of little consequence, The Black Bart Poetry Society Membership Drive and Benefit at the On Broadway was nothing short of spectacular. It was the poetry happening of the decade.
The last public event in which the Society was officially involved was the judging of a doggerel contest at the dedication of a plaque at the Blue Heron in Duncan Mills commemorating the site of Black Bart’s stage holdup on the Russian River. The poetry contest took place in October of 1990, with the two co-enablers acting as judges along with local poet Elizabeth Herron and media celebrity Jean Schultz (Snoopy’s mom). This event, produced by the San Francisco chapter of E Clampus Vitus, also included the Black Bart Gunfighters and The Original Great Pacific Reunion Jazz Band. Life Of Crime, the newsletter of The Black Bart Poetry Society, though less immediate, was however easier to produce than the elaborate and ambitious staging that the Society would have liked to bring together.
Now all that is history, the newsletter, Life Of Crime, is safely entombed between covers and available from Poltroon Press to anyone with twenty bucks and the urge to decipher facsimiles of badly printed mimeograph pages. Looking back on those days, what were known as the Language Wars, but perhaps more correctly the Dogma Wars, can be viewed as a class conflict between the careerist and the slacker, the professional and the bohemian, the elitist and the egalitarian, the academic and the artist, the status quo and the marginalized, and that clash was reflected in Life Of Crime. However, it is not in the interest of the newly repurposed Poetry Society to renew that conflict though undoubtedly some of those issues will resurface. It is rather in anticipation of a shared interest in the art of poetry that The New Black Bart Poetry Society will facilitate a loosely affiliated group of writers and inquisitive citizens coming together to examine, with the object of providing a lively discussion and reasoned dialectic, the arcane roots of this particular art as well as that of current practice and its role in a future in which elevated discourse is available in a diverse array of media alternatives.
A literary association such as The New Black Bart Poetry Society is not without precedent. In one respect it is modeled on the Georgian salons and in another on the Alfred Jarry School of Pataphysics. Breton’s Surrealist conclaves, Queneau’s witty brain child, OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle; Workshop for Potential Literature), and the spirit of Darrell Gray’s Actualist Movement also serve as models. It is the Society’s aim to move the appraisal and appreciation of poetry out of restrictive institutional forums and represent it in a more accessible and commonplace milieu.
The New Black Bart Poetry Society, however, is not a school of poetry nor does it endorse or espouse a particular philosophy of poetry. The Society will be open to all ideas and notions as to what makes a poem and what constitutes poetry, and actively seeks dialogue on all issues relevant to poetry without necessarily wishing to actually define it. Rather it prefers to circumscribe the subject much the same way that the energy signature of an event horizon circumscribes a singularity.
The future of The New Black Bart Poetry Society depends on a participating membership that will address the proceedings not only with a modicum of seriousness (when deemed absolutely necessary), but also with a conspiratorial conviviality that acknowledges their involvement in what just might be a hoax, a sham, a snake oil medicine show. The intent of The New Black Bart Poetry Society is, if not totally serious, certainly pure even as we laugh up our collective sleeves.
Addendum from the Parole Officer:
Shortly after the first meeting of the Poetry Society, Susan Ryan lost the lease on her small but vital bookstore space. See Memo To The Membership for the whole story. The intent of the new Society was thus unintentionally subverted and although alternate venues were proposed, the Society was put on hiatus. The Society’s blog, before it was renamed Parole lingered in limbo until it was reanimated the following year as just too good of an idea to let go. Again, much as had happened with the original Society, its newsletter, in this case blog, was still the most viable method of communication of its intent, ideas, and something else that starts with i. As the Grand Poohbah Emetius states in his conclusion: “The New Black Bart Poetry Society will facilitate a loosely affiliated group of writers and inquisitive citizens coming together to examine, with the object of providing a lively discussion and reasoned dialectic, the arcane roots of this particular art as well as that of current practice and its role in a future in which elevated discourse is available in a diverse array of media alternatives.” Parole can now act as the virtual forum for this dialectic. Membership in The New Black Bart Poetry Society is open to all. Simply click on the follow button and you are automatically a member, entitled to submit essays, critical or otherwise, on poetry, poets, and related subjects for consideration. It is reasonable to query the Parole Officer first at nuallainhousepublishers(at sign)gmail (dot) com.
Check out Ode To Sunset, the on-line serial fiction project from Nualláin House, Publishers.
Copies of Life Of Crime, Documents in the Guerrilla War Against Language Poetry are avaiable from Poltroon Press