To: The Membership & Interested Parties
From: Pat Nolan, Charter Member, NBBPS
Subject: The California School of New York Poets
Up Late, American Poetry Since 1970, generously compiled by Andrei Codrescu, and published by 4walls8windows in 1987, has been referred to as “Son of New York Poets” or “New York Poets, The Sequel”. In many respects Up Late is the proper heir to The Anthology of New York Poets just as that anthology was heir to Don Allen’s The New American Poetry in that they both highlighted a hip homegrown poetry esthetic. My reason for referencing the Codrescu anthology is that I am one of its poets. Several years ago, almost twenty-five years after the publication of Up Late, I was asked to provide a biographical note for another anthology. Being too distracted to think of something of my own, I looked to what Andrei had said about me in the contributor’s notes. Unfortunately the information didn’t exactly suit my purpose. What caught my interest, however, was that Codrescu had sought to designate a “California School” to which he indicated I belonged: “because its members, which have included at various times, Keith Abbott, Steven Lavoie, Steve Carey, Hunce Voelcker, Jeffrey Miller, Victoria Rathbun, and Andrei Codrescu, have all been connected by an active sense of place in the mid-70s.”
That “active sense of place” revolved around a Bay Area/ lower Russian River axis for the most part. Abbott, Lavoie, and Victoria Rathbun were the Bay Area representatives while Codrescu, Miller, Hunce Voelcker, and I were the ones residing in the redwood wilds. Steve Carey is the wild card, connected to Keith Abbott through friendship and the seventies mimeo magazine Blue Suede Shoes. Carey’s nexus was NYC/LA, though he did live in San Francisco in the late sixties and early seventies. To this roll call of poets I would add Michael-Sean Lazarchuk, a Southern Californian by way of Michigan, connected to the so-called California School through the poet underground of mimeo magazines and mail art. Such a diverse grouping of poets is not all that unlikely, but to call them a school is a bit of a stretch. There was a commonality centered on a New York Poets connection, however.
Ted Berrigan’s often quoted “If Bill Berkson is New York School, the rest of us are reform school” speaks loudly about the poets who came to prominence in the waning days of the post-Beat counterculture. The generational camaraderie fostered by The Anthology of New York Poets, edited by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro and published by Random House in 1970, lent an air of casual inclusive equanimity to these poets that allowed for first names like Frank, Ted, Jimmy, Ron, Tom, Clark, and drew from a range of nonaffiliated autodidacts, eccentrics, and visionaries committed to cultural revolution in the arts and literature. Their locus was the East Village and The Poetry Project based at St. Mark’s Church. Their literary organs were The World, C, and Fuck You.
I felt an immediate affinity with those I would characterized as the “tee shirt” poets represented in the New York anthology. They possessed a refreshing pop irreverence, not the rigid mindset of preppy conformity. Up to that time I had been struggling with the acclaimed establishment poets and keenly aware of their irrelevance, or of my own. I was alerted to the New York poets early on through my association with the brilliant young poet, Steve Carey, who was tuned in to all the latest goings-on in the poetry world, New York City in particular.
Carey’s first book of poems, Smith Going Backwards, published by Cranium Press in the mid-sixties, was for me a game-changing revelation. Steve was also on the ground floor when his good friend Keith Abbott started the mimeograph poetry magazine, Blue Suede Shoes, co-editing several issues. Never lacking in Steve Carey’s work is a sense of humor and a certain good natured audacity. His poetry is amazingly prescient and deftly modern. Carey died of a heart attack in 1989 at the age of 43. As Alice Notley says, “Steve Carey had the loveliest poetry voice I’ve ever encountered.” His legacy lives on in a selection of his work edited by Edmund Berrigan, The Selected Poems of Steve Carey (subpress, 2009).
I met Keith Abbott, a Northwest poet, in a rooming house on Cannery Row in Monterey where we both lived in the mid-sixties. Abbott directed my attention to the poetry of Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, and introduced me to Clifford Burke, the master printer and poet, and Richard Brautigan. And he tipped me to the potential of mimeo magazines. His Blue Suede Shoes was a vortex of New York poets on the West Coast. It was enough to make James Schuyler sit up and take notice, as he remarks in his March 1971 letter to Trevor Winkfield: “Have you ever exchanged magazines with Keith Abbott? He is, or was, Blue Suede Shoes. I like a lot of his poems—sort of West Coast Padgett, with a lot of the dilution that might imply—also someone he’s published named Pat Nolan, who’s a little closer to being a West Coast Larry Fagin; or perhaps is to Abbott what Fagin is to Padgett? Only different. . . .” (Just The Things, Selected Letters of James Schuyler Turtle Point Press, 2004). In 1973, Keith Abbott and I were the only two California poets to receive grants from the New York-based Poets Foundation.
Following Abbott’s example, I availed myself of the mimeograph equipment in the mailroom of the firm I worked for in Berkeley in the early seventies. My mimeo magazine was going to be a one shot deal, appropriately named the end, a title I had come up with reading the poetry of Clark Coolidge. the end displayed a definite New York School bias with poems by Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, and Jimmy Schuyler. After the first issue there was an expectation, judging from the mail and submissions I received, of subsequent issues. Back then, before the internet and Facebook, publishing a mimeo mag was a good way to meet other poets. That’s how I met Andrei Codrescu. He co-edited the double issue, The End Over End.
A few years after I moved to the Russian River area, Andrei, on a jaunt up from the city, stopped in unexpectedly. By coincidence, on that very same day, Keith Abbott, the British surrealist poet Opal Nations, and Michael-Sean Lazarchuk were also visiting. Not long after that, Codrescu purchased a house nearby. Andrei and I shared a love of the early 20th Century French poets whose poems we cavalierly translated (a number of them were published in The World #35, the Translation Issue, edited by Daniel Krekauer). The New York School was something else we held in common. Codrescu, in an introduction to his So Recently Rent A World (Coffee House, 2014) states, “. . .the New York School poets were a world unto themselves, inspired as much by Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp as by the Beats and Black Mountain poets. . .we were in fact a rebellious minority.”
It was while attending Sonoma State University to collect on the GI Bill that I fell in with the gifted young poet Steven Lavoie. Lavoie was also an aficionado of the New York poets. And it was Steve who introduced me to another exceptional poet, Victoria Rathbun. After transferring to UC Berkeley, Lavoie started his own Oakland-based mimeograph magazine, Famous, whose contributors were mostly within the New York School ballpark. Lavoie went on to further infamy as co-editor of Life Of Crime, newsletter of The Black Bart Poetry Society.
Hunce Voelcker’s connection with New York City was more visceral, to a lower East Side gay literary scene that revolved around the Eighth Street Bookstore where his Hart Crane scholarship and the shaping volume of a life’s work, The Hart Crane Voyages (The Brownstone Press, 1967), was begun and imaginatively continued up until the time of his death from emphysema in the early nineties. I had met Voelcker briefly when I lived in the East Village in the late sixties. I was reacquainted with him in the seventies through Codrescu who also knew him from his days at the Eighth Street Bookstore. At the time of his death, Voelcker was engaged in putting the final touches to a nine volume epic based on Hart Crane’s The Bridge. In 2006 Ithuriel’s Spear reprinted Voelcker’s Logan with a letter of introduction by Codrescu.
Voelcker was a Hart Crane scholar, eccentric, and magical thinker. He lived even further out in the redwood wilds than the rustic hamlet of Monte Rio where both Codrescu and I had our homes. Hunce inhabited a three-storey A-frame house surrounded by a cement moat featuring enormous spouting phalli and dioramas depicting scenes from A Death In Venice. He had made his reputation with The Hart Crane Voyages in sophisticated New York City, but out in the boonies he was quite the primitive in his feather decked western hat and Boy Scout kerchief. As primal as he seemed, Voelcker didn’t let his decidedly anthropomorphic view of the world stop him from embracing a technological future, being the first among us to own a computer. And a satellite dish. He even made his own home movies using a Super 8 camera and reel to reel tape recorder. One of those movies featured filmed portraits of a select group of local poets accompanied by recordings of them reading their poems. Besides depicting Codrescu, Dick Gallup, Rich Taggert and a handful of local literary talent, this was some of the only film of a young Jeffery Miller just before his twenty-ninth birthday.
Jeffrey Miller, like Lazarchuk, hailed from Michigan and evinced a serious interest in Frank O’Hara and the originals of the New York School. Miller arrived in Monte Rio in my post office box as an envelope stuffed with poems and a note that said the poet David Bromige, then teaching at Sonoma State, had recommended that he send me some of his work. And he showed up on Codrescu’s doorstep a few days later. Miller was the perfect storm of iconic rebellious stylishness and literary sophistication. His look epitomized a punk proto-grunge, and his poetry rocked. He was slated to be the star of the First Annual Punk Poetry Festival held at the Terminal Concept Gallery in San Francisco in 1977. A promising, vibrant, and extremely talented young poet, Miller died in July of that year when the Volkswagen he was riding in slammed into an immovable redwood giant. His poems were collected and published shortly after his death as The First One’s Free, and handed out to anyone who wanted a copy. In 2005 farfalla press published more of Miller’s work as The Heart is a Quarter-Pounder with an introduction by Codrescu and an afterword by Miller’s pal, Bruce Cheney.
The First Annual Punk Poetry Festival held in late August of that year and orchestrated in part by that maestro of goof, G.P. Skratz, featured poets representing a loose aggregation of hip urbanity that would easily fit under the California School of New York Poets umbrella. The list is a snapshot of some poets active in the Bay Area scene in the late seventies. Besides Codrescu, Abbott, Lavoie, Rathbun, and Miller (whose poems were read that day by Hash Flash), the bill also featured Gloria Frym, Darrell Gray, Gail King, Jim Gustafson, Lana Michaleczko, David Highsmith, G.P. Skratz, and Michael-Sean Lazarchuk. The poster for the event announced “The revolution was over & the world was broke & drunk again. . .” Accompanying the list of participants is a ghostly photo of Victoria and Michael-Sean taken by Mitch Dubin.
All the nominees in Codrescu’s California School have been gilded by attention in one way or another. Except for Victoria Rathbun. Of those who survived into the 21st century, some taught at universities or managed libraries or simply endured civil service. I don’t know what Victoria was doing at the time of her death in 2009. I knew she’d worked in a law office in the past, and for a literary agent. We’d lost touch though there were the occasional rumors through a network of shared friends of troubled times.
My very first conversation with Victoria Rathbun was about French cinema. And we discovered that we both spoke and read French, and liked many of the same French poets. In those days I was occupied with translating a variety of early 20th Century French poets. I was particularly taken by the precision of Jean Follain, the French magistrate and poet. I still have the pages of rough translations with Victoria’s comments, suggestions, and corrections in the margins in her distinctive Lloyd Reynolds italic hand. She had a great sense of the poem in French and a terrific ear for how it should sound in translation. Eventually I settled on the more colloquial poetry of Philippe Soupault and Victoria’s help was invaluable in picking out slang expressions. Most of our communication was through the mail, the shuttling of various versions of translations back and forth as well as a smattering of her original work. Victoria’s poetry was a lot like her, smart as a whip and beautifully arranged. She was elegant, obviously, with an almost manic sophistication. Yet with all her style and wit, her poems were not widely available except in obscure mimeo magazines and an anthology of baseball poems, Baseball Diamonds (1980)—a rabid Giants fan, she’d adopted the endearing moniker of pop fly.
What I found when I went through the file folder of her letters and post cards were a few poems tucked in envelopes with a greeting or notice of an up-coming reading. Of all the poems Victoria sent me over the years, this one jumped out at me with heart stopping prescience.
COME WHAT MAY
we know an inexplicable serenity
The sea an unmade bed
The light like spilled champagne
in an office abandoned
for the weekend
All book-bindings are gilded
All leather smells of knowledge & work
We know nothing of time
as we sip our air
like fish philosophizing about water
like light falling come what may
—Victoria Rathbun 7.24.77
That Victoria’s work is not represented in Up Late is not so much one of exclusion as perhaps the poet was no longer all that visible on the poetry radar around the time the anthology was being compiled.
The case is similar to that of Michael-Sean Lazarchuk’s. An imposing figure—imagine a poetry-writing Cossack out of the pages of Taras Bulba—Lazarchuk stood six foot two or three, taller in his heavy metal rock’n’roll platform shoes. He wore his long blondish hair in a quasi-mullet shag that was distinctly LA rocker. Add a Fu Machu moustache and Michael-Sean was a rather forbidding presence. Michael-Sean edited a poetry magazine called Baloney Street out of Ventura when I first met him in the early seventies. There was no doubt that he had stumbled upon the New York Poets anthology as well. He revered Frank O’Hara who was always referred to as “Frank” as if he were his mother’s cousin or some close relation. Ted Berrigan came in for the same treatment, a poetry demigod to his way of thinking. He had educated himself as a contemporary poet with contemporary poetry while playing catch-up with musty tradition. Literature classes were just too slow, too conventional, too tight-ass Anglo. He was an Americano and the latest argot deserved to be sung or yawped and the world made cognizant of its meaningful beauty.
I learned of Lazarchuk’s passing from his ex in 2009. She had come across his obituary from the year before while searching his name online. At one point in the late seventies or early eighties, Lazarchuk had fled the scene and gone incommunicado, back to Michigan. As with Victoria, I assumed I had many of Michael-Sean’s poems in my files. I was mistaken. There were only a couple of envelopes with some early work typed on onion skin paper of which the following is but a mere hint of the imaginative speculation to which he gave voice.
WHERE I’M AT
High up to be cruising
Within the multiple postures
Of the organism kicking in the
Depths of altitude’s momentous
Organization from which time
Concerns nothing and our lovely
Sky forms radiance where everything
Expires to fragments of
Activity moving on a
Collision course with
—Michael-Sean Lazarchuk (c.1972, from a mss tentatively titled Guru Confessions)
Lazarchuk had a little more poetry visibility than Rathbun, but not much. The Side Show Of Life was published by Temporary Eternity Books in 1972 as was a selection of poems with the decidedly earthy title of Armpit. He rated a special issue of Blue Suede Shoes entitled Face in 1974. In 1980 or thereabouts, Hard Press published Zip Gun. Michael-Sean was New York School with a Bukowski attitude.
As Andrei Codrescu asserts in his introduction to the anthology, “The true poets are operating today in a field larger than the narrows of academic or political succession. What is at stake is a certain sense of the world against a modest professionalism. The paradox of the current American poetry scene is that the undereducated hold the mainstream while the sophisticated poets work in relative obscurity. Today’s outsiders are, for the most part, within the radical mainstream of American poetry that stretches from Whitman and Dickinson through Pound and Stein, but with the added influences of dada, surrealism, painting, political activism, drugs, and rock’n roll.”
That statement is as true today as it was back in the late eighties. The divide between those who have ambition and those who have vision is nothing new. In the US being a poet is more a matter of class privilege and education than real talent. Unless you’ve wrangled yourself an institutional sinecure, you ain’t going nowhere. The independent American poets represented in Up Late are second and third generation New York School, California Zen Surrealists, performance and “new wave” poets, erotic lyricists, outliers, outlaws, outsiders, ronin, and “language” poets. Sadly, the authentic poets of Codrescu’s designation have been marginalized in favor of gentrified politically correct socially acceptable undereducated MFA pods.
You won’t find Carey, Lazarchuk, Rathbun, or Voelcker represented in Up Late, American Poetry Since 1970. Although Codrescu’s anthology was probably the last of its kind to try for such a representative overview of unaffiliated poets, the exclusion of these exemplary poets is due more to lack of space than any particular prejudice and does not render them any less exceptional. Up Late attempted the impossible task of fitting a truly diverse American poetic into one volume. As such, each poet represented in this anthology is a node on a network that includes and references their comrades in art. For one of them to be recognized means that in spirit their friends and contemporaries share the attention. Here the nods are from Abbott to Carey, Codrescu to Voelcker, Lavoie to Rathbun, Nolan to Lazarchuk, their contribution to American poetry duly noted.
Pat Nolan’s most recent poetry selection, Your Name Here, New Poems, was published by Nualláin House, Publishers in 2014. His online serial novel, Ode To Sunset, A Year in The Life of American Genius, has been posting regular installments for the last nine months, and is available for perusing at odetosunset.com
Photos of Victoria Rathbun and Michael-Sean Lazarchuk as well as the poster for The First Annual Punk Poetry Festival are from David Highsmith’s flickr photostream, a nostalgia drive-by of the seventies Bay Area poetry scene.