To: The Membership & Interested Parties
From: Chinee, Grand Poobah, NBBPS
Subject: At A Secret Location
There once was a poetry treasure trove in a basement in North Beach in San Francisco. It was accessed by wooden stairs leading down into a brick lined cellar arrayed with book shelves, both freestanding and fastened to the walls, this being earthquake country after all. Scattered throughout were a few round topped café tables, one of which hosted a conversation between Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsburg back in the hoary Beatnik past. That little bit of history was but a mere diversion when compared to the literary wealth that could be found in a little alcove off to one side of the main book displays. This was where the indie small press and little magazine section was located, crammed with the latest from university sponsored literary quarterlies and independent publishers to on-the-fly one-shot mimeograph productions. That cellar belonged to City Lights Bookstore.
City Lights Bookstore, a world renowned cultural and literary landmark, had drawn many a young aspiring writer to its doors in the early 60’s, particularly after its Pocket Poets Series published Ginsberg’s Howl and appeared to be the crucible of what became known as the San Francisco Renaissance. And City Lights, like similar independent bookstores across the U.S. in those days, such as the Eighth Street Book Shop and Ed Sanders’ Peace Eye in New York City, and the Asphodel Bookstore in Cleveland, served as the hubs of an informal distribution network, each of the little magazines and cheaply produced chapbooks functioning as a node and feeding into that hub a vital innovative literature. Nor should the radical vortex of Moe’s, Cody’s, and Shakespeare & Co located all within one block of each other on Telegraph Ave in Berkeley go unmentioned. This network was, as were the times, subversive in its ubiquity. Alternate information sources were methods of undermining the social as well as literary order and proclaiming that elusive quantum, truth. Small presses and mimeograph machines were at the heart of that revolution. Once you accepted the idea that a sheaf of paper stapled on the left vertical edge and whose text was printed on a mimeograph machine with a crudely hand drawn cover is a book or magazine, you have taken one step further into the adjacent possibility of an alternate appreciation of what constitutes literature. Here then was evidence of the vitality of an unaffiliated post-war American poetry.
As Donald Allen stated in the Introduction to his epoch defining New American Poetry, 1945-1960, the poetry presented in his anthology had one common characteristic: “a total rejection of all those qualities typical of academic verse. Following the practice and precepts of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, it has built on their achievements and gone on to evolve new conceptions of the poem. These poets have already created their own tradition, their own press, their own public. They are our avant-garde, the true continuers of the modern movement in American poetry.” What is also important about the Allen anthology is that he defined certain trends in American writing that did not follow the academic party line. As the editor of one of the most visible mid-century avant-garde publications, Evergreen Review, Allen was in a unique position to identify groups of young writers who were at the leading edge of the second wave of modernist thinking. By grouping the poets by esthetic bent rather than the conventions of region and hierarchy, The New American Poetry highlighted the vibrancy of the homegrown American literary movements that had distanced themselves from the institutionalized Anglo–American canon, and were capable of sustaining themselves separate from the accepting sanctions of academe’s literary mandarins.
Not surprisingly the magazines in the small press section of City Lights had a strong regional bias, Northern California and West Coast, and included such publications as Beatitude, City Lights Journal, Renaissance, and San Francisco Earthquake. Clifford Burke’s Cranium Press, featuring chapbooks by Peter Wild, Keith Abbott, and Steve Carey, and his irregularly published literary magazine, Hollow Orange, all distinguished by their fastidious production values, were also on display. IO edited by Richard Grossinger and Lindy Hough was produced in Berkeley, as was David Sandberg’s short lived Or. George Hitchcock’s Kayak, from down the coast in Santa Cruz published some of the early work by Raymond Carver. Dust and Dust Books came from rural Paradise and was edited by the indefatigable Len Fulton, tireless chronicler and bibliographer of the little magazine scene. DR Wagner published Runcible Spoon out of Sacramento. The State Capital was also home to Doug Blazek, publisher of Open Skull Press (not to be confused with the later Soft Skull Press) as well as the professionally produced, Ole’, one of the first small mimeograph magazines to reach a nationwide audience, and publishing many non-establishment poets such as Brown Miller, Lyn Lifshin, d.a. levy, and Charles Bukowski who could not get published or would not publish in mainstream literary publications such as Poetry Magazine. James Koller’s Coyote Journal featured the poetry of Ed Dorn and Larry Eigner, as well as championing the work of Philip Whalen, and in partnership with Harcourt, Brace, was instrumental in publishing Whalen’s game changing On Bear’s Head in 1969. Oregon was also the launch site of Intransit.
Among the locally produced poetry books from letterpress and offset indie publishers were those of Oyez and Graham Mackintosh’s White Rabbit Press in Berkeley. Their authors’ lists were somewhat similar in that they both featured representations of work by Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan, Mary Korte and Larry Eigner. Clifford Burke’s Cranium Press, Dave Hazelwood’s Auerhahn Press, and later Holbrook Teter’s Zephyrus Image Press were among the purveyors of finely printed poetry objects such as broadsides and limited edition chapbooks. Clifford Burke wrote the book on placement of the poem on the page. Haselwood’s Auerhahn Press printed exquisite examples of bookwork such as Jack Spicer’s The Heads of the Town Up to Aether, Philip Whalen’s Memoirs of An Interglacial Age, and John Wiener’s The Hotel Wentley Poems.
The importance of the role the indie bookstore played as a distribution hub for this alternate source of literature should not be underestimated. The evidence was in the number of magazines and publications filling up the display racks and stacked on the shelves from other parts of the world: Margaret Randall’s El Corno Emplumado from Mexico City, The Ant’s Forefoot and bp Nichol’s Ganglia from Toronto, Imago out of Vancouver, Change and The Artist Workshop Press publications edited by John Sinclair in Detroit, the seminal Big Table from Chicago, Grist, John Fowler’s poetry magazine out of Lawrence, Kansas, and Jim Haining’s Salt Lick wandering from Illinois to Texas to Oregon featuring the poetry of the renowned and irascible Gerald Burns. Cape Goliard Press in London provided their American confreres with The Maximus Poems by Charles Olson as well as editions of works by Ted Berrigan, Tom Raworth, Allen Ginsberg, Anselm Hollo, and Robert Creeley. Also from London, Fulcrum Press issued books by Ed Dorn, Jerome Rothenberg, and Gary Snyder.
By far the greatest number of out of region publications seemed to come from New York City or the East Coast. David Henderson’s Umbra publishing primarily African American writers was a Big Apple production as was Bill Berkson’s Best & Co, a single shot compendium that presaged the Anthology of New York Poets. Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) published Yugen beginning in the late fifties, and with Diane DiPrima, the mimeo newsletter, The Floating Bear. The slick professionally printed avant-garde Evergreen Review helmed by Donald Allen, editor of the revolutionary The New American Poetry, contrasted with the just as vital C Magazine, Ted Berrigan’s ardent guerrilla mimeo publication, and the radical Fuck You, A magazine of the arts, both printed at secret locations on the Lower East Side. Caterpillar (anyone remember Clayton Eshelman?) started in New York City before moving to California. Joglar, Clark Coolidge’s magazine, issued from Connecticut, as did Keith and Rosemary Waldrop’s poetry flame, Burning Deck. Mother, a wandering vehicle of literature edited in part by Lewis McAdams and Peter Schjeldahl was published variously from Minnesota, Illinois, NYC, and Buffalo, renowned for its scandalous Ted Berrigan faux interview with John Cage.
Call it outlaw or outlier, but always call it authentic. The homespun literary underground was a kind of American samizdat manuscript distribution system that sidestepped the sanctioning establishment by getting out the news of poetry with the immediacy of its crucial message. There, in the City Lights cellar among the ranks of professionally produced slick spines, was a dusty chaotic corner where what might be called loiterature could be found, the kind of reading material that went with hanging out. It can probably be said with certainty that few of those young readers leaning against the alcove’s arches or basement pillars or squatting on the floor in front of the magazine display were there to buy the diverse literary productions. Like a grotto, the alcove was a place of pilgrimage. It functioned as the terminus, the portal, the bulletin board of an unaffiliated Americano literature. For the fledgling poet the little mag alcove served as a classroom and a library from which to sample the visceral realism of Americano poetry. Underground Lit was a world abuzz with makeshift energy, and for a few crucial decades the mimeograph machine was the engine of poetry.
This nostalgic stroll through a scrappier, scruffier time in the history of a legitimate Americano literature was enabled by the recovery and rediscovery on the Poetry Society’s shelves of A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing 1960-1980: A Sourcebook of Information edited and compiled by Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips (The New York Public Library./Granary Books, 1998). Much of the treasure trove available in the basement of the City Lights Bookstore is cataloged in its pages and presents a picture of the rich texture and diversity, granularity, we’d say today, of a marginalized literature within the time frame of those twenty years. In his introduction, Jerome Rothenberg (no mean anthologist and literary historian himself) identifies that populist American grounding as “the part by which it has been & will be known, has long been on the margins, carried forward, vibrant, in the margins. As mainstream & margin both, it represents our underground economy as poets, the gray market for our spiritual/ corporeal exchanges. It is the creation as such of those poets who have seized or often have invented their own means of production and of distribution.”
As depicted in the fairly representative sampling of book and magazine covers and attendant short bibliographic sketches, the story of the resistance to an outdated and reactionary literary establishment unfolds. These books and magazines produced on the wild side demonstrate the desire to slough off the prevalent Anglo hegemony, rejecting the restrictive New Criticism’s objective correlatives. The aspiration was in identifying a unique American voice all the while recognizing the diverse international community of literature brought about by modernism. “The autonomy of the poet is of singular importance” Rothenberg adds, “And this is because poetry as we know & want it is the language of those precisely at the margins—born there, or more often still, self-situated: a strategic position from which to struggle with the center of culture & a language we no longer choose to bear.”
This wealth of independently produced small press books and little magazines signified a revolution in American Literature, but, as is the fate of most revolutions, it got sold out. One way to undermine a revolution is to fund it and then sit back and watch the competing factions fight over the money. In the 70’s, through federal programs and arts foundations, money in the form of grants and awards was funneled into independent publishing and enterprising journals. The positive side is that production values improved considerably and a few ambitious individuals legitimized, in print at least, a segment of the American avant-garde—Alan Kornblum’s Coffee House Press is a case in point. And consequently there resulted a large number of professionally produced poetry books and magazines benefiting from grants from the National Endowment for the Arts or associated organizations. Funded also was an infrastructure comprised of community based print centers functioning as factories for the various small press projects and literary journals, distribution hubs of said books and journals as well as umbrella arts organizations and clearing houses such as CCLM, COSMEP, and Poets & Writers through which endowment programs were advertised and grants could be obtained by application to a committee of peers (or cronies). All of which had a polarizing effect so that an otherwise benign factionalism became vitriolic, cut-throat and elitist (more than usual) due in large part to the competition for monies but also the necessity of boundary defining ideologies that were required to be spelled out on grant applications.
Much of the infrastructure that is publishing outside the mainstream today is supported by art funding and grants from State, Federal, institutional and private arts foundations. Unfortunately the politics of government largess leads to the professionalization of the arts and requires the services of middle men or women, the arts bureaucrat aka the artistocrat. The advantage or disadvantage of government funding is an issue in of itself, too complex and divisive to be addressed here. There is no denying, however, that it changed the equation. Some might argue that it brought order out of chaos. Others, that it was yet another bourgeois appropriation of the authentic.
No matter, because by the mid 80’s a Schumpeterian change was breathing down the neck of the pseudo-nouveau vague. The digital revolution was a tidal wave in comparison to the previous three decades for access to the means of production. Enter desktop publishing, ebooks, online magazines, print-on-demand, and blogs, all with DIY potential. For poetry and its dissemination, the term ubiquity takes on a life of its own, like Easter Week in a petri dish. The creative dismantling of the old order in defining the new order, such as it can be defined, continues to unravel and reanimate. What has come full circle, though not arriving at the same exact point but in close parallel, is the readily available means of production at the disposal of the poet. Once, all that was needed to publish a poetry book or magazine was a mimeograph machine (begged, borrowed, or appropriated), a quire or two of stencils, half a dozen reams of paper, a typewriter, preferably electric, a stapler, a good mailing list, a twelve-pack, and a passion to get’er done. Now the requirements are a personal computer, internet access, social media, and a hosting platform. Undeniably, the blog has come to be the mimeo magazine of today (PO’s note: such as this one). And WordPress or Blogspot are names like Gestetner and A.B. Dick used to be.
As much as open access to so large a potential (information and productivity) is a benefit to authors, their work available at a few key strokes, there are the drawbacks of TMI (too much info). The impossibility of limitless choice contributes to an entropic leveling of the field. The margins that Rothenberg spoke of in his introduction to A Secret Location have disappeared because there is no longer place for definable edges. Cyber space is no place and all places at the same time. Gone are the secret locations, except maybe those in the heart, and presciently like Stein’s metaphoric Oakland, there is no there there. Not only that, but the wild new digital frontier is fraught with literary anomalies such as the poetry troll, zombie poets, and that Turing specter, robopo. Leaning on a brick stanchion in an underground cavern reading the latest poetry books or magazines as if they contained rare and privileged communications has been replaced by gazing at a light emitting device where something like Borges’ recursive library is available at finger tip and where once again the thumb rises above its mere grasping ambitions. Sadly though, an Archimedean balance has been lost. There is no place to stand, fulcrum and lever are nonexistent or not up to the task, and the object, a cohesive sense of literature, has no center of gravity from which to be displaced.
On a positive note, however, for those aficionados of fine printing and the history of small press publishing similar to that found in A Secret Location on the Lower East Side, and who are partial to the tactile world of foolscap, ink stained aprons, hand-set type, and platen presses, there is good news. Alastair Johnston, author and publisher of many fine bibliographic histories including Poltroon Press’ Zephyrus Image, a definitive look at the Holbrook Teter/ Michael Myer collaboration, and Life of Crime, Documents in the Guerrilla War against Language Poetry, will have his long awaited history of fine printing and the literary arts, Dreaming On The Edge, Poets and Book Artists in California, an intimate look at book arts and small presses from 1877 to 2015, published by Oak Knoll Books of Delaware with a publication date set for June, 2016. It will be a welcome addition to the Poetry Society’s shelves.
New to the Society’s Shelves
Robert Hebert, Rudiments d’us, Ecrits Des Forges (1983)
Eric Johnson, Buffalo, Rome, Split Shift Books (1997)
Bill Berkson, Expect Delays, Coffee House Press (2014)
Gloria Frym, The True Patriot, Spytun Duyvil (2015)
Pat Nolan et al, Poetry For Sale, Nualláin House, Publishers (2015)
Guillaume Apollinaire, Zone (trans, R. Padgett), New York Review of Books (2015)
Joel Dailey, ed., The Southern Testicle Review #6, (2016)
a proud tradition…
Sharp interesting take on the history…hard to feel the same way about the online zines etc, but I’m biased. Or beveled.
I read this as an ode to books (and other publications) – the feel, smell and look of them. The ability to hold them in your hand, take them home with you, where you can snuggle up to them in bed. Or visit them, as you would an old friend, in backstreet bookstores and darkening libraries. A world that has largely been lost in the clouds.
Pat–great piece, and thanks for mentioning Moe’s. FYI we’ve expanded our small press sections–trying to keep up the tradition. Will post this on the Moe’s facebook page.