To: The Membership and Interested Parties
From: Steven Lavoie, Charter Member of the NBBPS
Subject: The Actualist Dispersal to the San Francisco Bay Area
WAY WAY WEST
The Actualist Dispersal to the San Francisco Bay Area
by Steven Lavoie
The Actualists ARE the Actualists. They aren’t Actualists because they ascribe to something known as Actualism, the way a Surrealist practices Surrealism. They are Actualists the way John, Paul, George and Ringo are Beatles.
By the mid-1970s, they began a dispersal that would place Actualists at the center of cultural activities in distant cities across North America. In 1975, that dispersal brought George Mattingly and Darrell Gray to the vibrant and flourishing community of poets in Northern California. Mattingly was new to the West Coast. Gray was returning to his birthplace in Oakland.
They arrived to a region very familiar with groups of creative people who distinguished themselves by self-identification with certain colleagues. That tradition among poets and artists was introduced to the San Francisco Bay Area late in the previous century by The Bohemians, whose name, uttered in the lower-case, would come to stand for a particular lifestyle that would endure in this region. But unlike The Bohemians, the Actualists would not lend their name to a way-of-life. Instead they would find one that had much in common with the world they left in Iowa City.
And they did not come out of the blue. Ted Berrigan, resident poet at the Iowa Writers Workshop (hereafter “IWW”) in the tumultuous period 1967-1969, instilled his fervent advocacy of mimeograph publishing, encouraging all young, ambitious poets he encountered to start a magazine. The advice was well-taken in Iowa City. This strategy was well underway in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the underground press had helped to spur a youth uprising of historic proportions in protest of the Vietnam War and where Richard Brautigan used self-publication to penetrate the mass literary market.
Many of the Actualists launched their own journals, Mattingly and Gray among them. Copies of Mattingly’s Search for Tomorrow and Gray’s Suction had reached the Bay Area where friends of Brautigan and a larger circle of young poets were collecting around Cranium Press in San Francisco, where Clifford Burke shared use of his letterpress, among them Keith Abbott, an old friend of Brautigan’s from the Pacific Northwest, and Pat Nolan, who had become allies in the Monterey Bay area, weathering the height of the Flower Power insurgency of 1967 there.
Both had mimeograph magazines. Abbott’s Blue Suede Shoes was launched in Bellingham, Washington, while he attended Western Washington University and he continued its publication from an apartment in the rapidly crumbling hippy headquarters of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District. Nolan published The End from his residence in Oakland where the Black Panther Party was actualizing its grass-roots formula for social change. The Actualists began submitting to these and other little magazines underway at the time.
The work of other young poets of the San Francisco Bay Area, notably Andrei Codrescu, became known to the Actualists, too, who were sending their work for consideration in the Iowa City magazines. Codrescu would join Allen Ginsberg in an elite group whose work would find its way into Matchbook, Dave Morice’s journal of one-word poems published as part of his Joyce Holland-hoax in the early 1970s. Morice was attracting particular attention among young poets for his theatrical & Dadaesque literary experiments, not to mention his appearance on NBC’s late-night show, “Tomorrow” with Tom Snyder, which made him the envy of many fame-hungry young poets of his generation. This broadcast made Morice a peer of the rock stars and to the Actualists and to the Bay Area poets with whom they were finding affinity, rock stars had become cultural icons and poetic inspirations.
A mutual appreciation of rock-n-roll distinguished these poets from generations before and from others of their contemporaries. It guaranteed, too, a certain amount of instant camaraderie, providing what jazz had provided for the Beats. The songwriting talents of the rock stars contributed to the poets’ poetics while the interactive and multimedia components of the bands’ live shows helped to inform the poets’ public presentations.
By 1975, Abbott had abandoned the crumbling infrastructure of the Haight-Ashbury for a house in North Berkeley where he lived with his wife and young daughter. A party there welcomed the Actualists (Mattingly & Gray) shortly after their arrival to the Bay Area. Invitees included a vast array of local poets: defenders of Robert Duncan and the Black Mountain Poets, some young post-Beats from North Beach, acolytes of Philip K. Dick who was not long gone from Berkeley, and lots of rock-n-rollers, most either too shy or too self-conscious to pose the burning question, or else already in the know and not wondering. The question was answered when, in gloaming’s dimness, Darrell Gray marched assertively through the front room of Abbott’s house, heading toward the stairwell to the second floor of the Abbotts’ one-story bungalow. It had no stairwell to the second floor. Nevertheless, Gray headed on with Quixotic determination, smashing hard, head-on into a bare, white, plasterboard wall, angered by the sudden and unexcused disappearance of those stairs he was about to climb. Mattingly shrugged and carried on the warm and friendly conversation he brought to the Bay Area with him while Gray grappled, half-dazed from the impact, with this current disturbance of our physical realm.
The Actualists had arrived.
They each came accompanied by their prodigious talents. Talent was not a prerequisite to qualify a poet for recognition in the Bay Area literary community of this period. To an objective outsider, it may have seemed instead, that talent posed a primal threat to many of the young poets who relied so heavily on adherence to the poetics of one or the other local literary giant of an earlier generation. These Actualists had talent.
Mattingly arrived with an impressive body of poetry that he would collect into a monograph of the press, Blue Wind, that came with him from Iowa City. He had his poems to peddle, the books he published, along with instincts for design that allowed him to quickly establish a career for himself in the graphic arts and book-publishing trades. He joined a burgeoning community of small-press publishers operating under the roof of the West Coast Print Center, an institution founded by Don Cushman with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, that would enable many of the challenging and boundary-stretching younger poets of the period to reach print in one or the other of a broad array of literary presses.
There he would join former classmates at IWW, Curtis Faville, Bob Perelman and Barrett Watten who had NOT become Actualists during their stays in Iowa City, to carry on publishing activities at the center. Faville founded his magazine L and its eponymous publishing imprint, Barrett Watten expanded This, the magazine he cofounded with Robert Grenier, into This Press, publishing, among others, Clark Coolidge, known to the Bay Area rock-and-rollers as the drummer in Serpent Power, the psychedelic-era rock band fronted by local poet David Meltzer and his wife. Perelman continued the publication of his journal, Hills, utilizing the printing equipment at the center.
Each of Gray’s West Coast publishers had a presence at the center. Besides Mattingly, who published Gray’s Something Swims Out back in Iowa City, Alastair Johnston of Poltroon Press (and Transitional Face) set much of the type at the center. Poltroon would publish Halos of Debris in 1984, Gray’s final collection, showcasing the shimmering lyrical brilliance that came with his extraordinary gift. A third press with ties to the center, Sombre Reptiles, would publish Gray, too. (Its founders, Jerry Ratch and Mary Ann Hayden found obvious inspiration from rock music, naming their press after a song by Brian Eno, formerly of the band Roxy Music).
While Gray’s alcoholism progressed, Mattingly’s career flourished. He fell in with a circle of young designers that included David Bullen, Johanna Drucker and others, carried on friendship with Keith Abbott and many other poets who he’s met along the way.
Among poets and writers, Gray managed to develop and maintain a close friendship with Jim Nisbet, who has built a cult-following for his often savage noir novels, but who began his literary coming-of-age as a poet. Nisbet has remained a loyal advocate of Gray’s legacy and a champion of the prodigious talents Gray possessed.
Gray would find companionship, too, with another group of University of Iowa alumni who had leased a space on Blake Street in Berkeley to engage in performance art. (G. P. Skratz writes more on the work of this group in his essay in this volume.) Bob Ernst, who attended the IWW while Ted Berrigan was in residency, cofounded the Blake Street Hawkeyes at the space, out of which emerged George Coates Performance Works, presenting its ambitious, large-scale multimedia pieces incorporating new technologies in new ways or for the first time in theater. Coates openly acknowledged the role of the Actualists in the breakthroughs he would help bring to performance art and the experience of art in general.
While veterans of the Blake Street Hawkeyes were expanding and institutionalizing a heritage of the Actualists, among poets it seemed to be getting dismissed – even denigrated – here in the Bay Area. Out of nowhere in the 1980s, poets began being pegged with the designation “post-Actualist,” a term used to lump various non-conforming, sometimes personally acquainted poets and writers together into some kind of literary “school,” seemingly to exile them into some kind of anachronistic oblivion. Nisbet and the circle that has come to surround him seemed to be the exemplar of this amorphous so-called “post-Actualist” school.
The editors of Life of Crime, the notorious newsletter of the Black Bart Poetry Society, cofounded by Pat Nolan, an early compatriot of the Actualists, recognized this tactic early on and solicited Dave Morice to help debunk the strategy by inviting his collaboration in the “Post-Actualist Manifesto,” later reprinted in an issue of Semiotext(e).
The manifesto exposed the fundamental paradox embodied by the Actualists, a paradox that Coates and his contemporaries in performance were able to absorb into the kernel of their aesthetic. At the same time, the manifesto revealed the nonsensicality of the term “post-Actualist” used as a descriptor.
To be an Actualist, you must declare yourself to be one. You cannot be an Actualist if you don’t. The act does not require the embrace of any aesthetics, any poetic principles, sets of stylistic approaches or techniques of expression. But you did have to self-designate. Furthermore, by definition, an Actualist could not be designated as such by a third party. Thus the phrase “Actualist poem” is nonsense. That would demand that “actualism” somehow be illustrated in the poem, when “actualism” describes a particular point-of-view within metaphysics and is not applicable in poetics. Therefore, it can only be an “Actualist’s poem,” i.e., one written by one of the 15* Actualists or in the case of a collaboration by a group of Actualists, an “Actualists’ poem.” Actualist as an adjective is empty of meaning. With that in mind, it is bewildering to try to get your mind around the meaning of “post-Actualist” as an adjective or as a designation for anyone or anyone’s work, unless of course it contains a misplaced hyphen and should be represented as two proper nouns, i. e., “Post Actualist,” in the manner of “Post Toasties,” however unlikely it might be that anyone at Post Foods would elect to assign its brand to any flavor of poet.
As for the Actualists in California, only George Mattingly survives.
*The ranks of the Actualists were reduced to 14 following the exposure of Joyce Holland as a literary hoax.
Steven Lavoie, a poet & librarian living in Oakland, and formerly a columnist with the Oakland Tribune, remains personal friends with more than one Actualist, and has been published by more than one, too. Long, long ago, he published Actualists in his Oakland-based magazine Famous. He was a student at the University of California, Berkeley when he attended the reception for George Mattingly and Darrell Gray hosted by Keith Abbott. Lavoie was also co-editor of the scurrilous Life Of Crime, Newsletter of The Black Bart Poetry Society, and the equally notorious schismatic Life Of Crime-In-Exile in the mid 1980’s. The complete set of newsletters is now available under one cover as Life Of Crime, Documents in the Guerrilla War Against Language Poetry from Poltroon Press.
Way Way West is one of the featured essays in The Ultimate Actualist Convention, A Detailed View of Iowa City Actualism in the 1970s & Its Migration to the San Francisco Bay Area, by Joseph A. Michaud (with a lot of help from his friends) to be published by The Spirit That Moves Us Press in the Fall of 2015.
For an in-depth remembrance of Darrell Gray and the coming together of the Actualists in Iowa City, see late Coffee House Press founder and poet Allan Kornblum’s Darrell Gray: A Great Adventure