In Conversation With Maureen Owen

In Conversation with Maureen Owen


American poet, editor, and publisher Maureen Owen was born in Minnesota in 1943 and grew up on the racetrack circuit in California where her parents were horse trainers.  She was an early participant in St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York City, and Co-Director and Program Coordinator (1976–1980) serving on the Board of the Poetry Project and the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines as well—both as a member and as vice-chairperson. She was also the editor and publisher of Telephone Books and Telephone magazine which she began publishing and editing in the late sixties, and includes thirty individual poetry titles and nineteen issues of the magazine.

Maureen has taught courses in creative writing and research at the Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in 1999, as well as mentoring workshops at Swarthmore College and St. Joseph’s College in Connecticut. She also taught in the low-residency MFA Creative Writing Program at Naropa University in Colorado, and was editor-in-chief of Naropa’s on-line zine not enough night.

The author of almost a dozen poetry selections, including Zombie Notes (1985), Imaginary Income (1992), American Rush: Selected Poems (1998), Erosion’s Pull (2006), and the most recent Edges of Water (2013) from Chax Press, Maureen Owen was the recipient of the Before Columbus American Book Award (1985) and the 2011 Fund For Poetry Award among a handful of other honors and recognitions for her poetry.  Maureen was also part of a collaborative group of poets,  including Keith Kumasen Abbott, Michael Sowl, and Pat Nolan, writing hakai no renga (linked poetry) over a period of thirty years and known as the Miner School of Haikai Poets, examples of which were published in 2015 under the Nualláin House, Publishers imprint as Poetry For Sale.

Maureen Owen’s work has always been unique, and unusual in its look; the poem moves across the page mimicking a player piano roll in the way it triggers the synapses. To read her poems is to play her melody. She can be compared to Bonnie Raitt in that she has a strong confident voice with earthy overtones.  In some poems she echoes that pervasive American folk style, the blues, and blends it with classical lament. Paul Hoover has said of her work, “Astonishing things quietly occur” while Andrei Codrescu notes “Her exuberant style and tremendous energy shine in her strongly feminist works.”

Maureen Owen currently makes her home in Denver, Colorado.  This interview was leisurely conducted and composed over a period of 6 months via emailed exchanges with Pat Nolan.

Do you remember your first book of poems?

 Of course! Adventures in Poetry, Larry Fagin’s press, brought out the first book of my work, Country Rush in 1973. It was mimeo with a stunning cover and original drawings by Yvonne Jacquette.  When I first saw Yvonne’s drawings for the book I felt as though she had magically pulled the images straight out of my head. She had captured images that resonated to an unbelievable degree with the poems. Her drawings were the very objects that I had been looking at that summer in Minnesota on my uncle’s farm.  Starkly focusing on one telephone pole against an infinite sky or one corner of a barn roof pushing into infinite space, it was cosmic!

I remember the poetry magazine, Big Deal 5, was a special issue of your work. I might have even owned a copy or someone I knew had a copy.  One section was titled the No Travel Journals. It was a nice presentation with a big picture of you on the cover. Offset, right?  Not mimeographed. Were most of those poems written during your time in New York City or were some from your experiences on the West Coast and in Japan?

mobigdeal5 Big deal 5: The Poetry of Maureen Owen presents two “books.”  The first is titled: a brass choir approaches the burial ground   or  “From the arms of one man into the arms of another.”   Published in 1977, that says it exactly.  The second half was a reprint of the No Travels Journal. The marvelous Charlie Plymell had published the No Travels Journal at Cherry Valley Editions. His was a gorgeous production. Hugh Kepets created the wrap around cover and inside drawings, architectural and stunning! The 500 copies were gone fairly fast. Barbara Barracks at Big Deal offered to give it more exposure by reprinting the text in Big Deal #5. She didn’t have the funds to include Hugh’s drawings so we added photos of me as a kid on the farm to both “books.”

The edition was produced offset and with a cover photo by Josely Carvalho, an amazing photographer and silk screen artist who had a little studio at St Marks Church below the rectory.

A world of fabulous creative people!

The No Travels Journal was written in New York City and during a summer visiting my Uncle Bud in Minnesota on the farm.  All my New York City pals had been and were traveling to exotic geographies and feeling left stateside, I decided to write a No Travels Journal.

Both No Travels and A brass choir orbited around breaking up with one love and finding another.

 How and when did you conceive of yourself as a writer, a poet?

I was reading an interview with Merce Cunningham where he says it’s difficult for him to talk about dance.  Difficult because of its evanescence. He compares ideas on dance, and dance itself, to water. And how that very fluidity makes dance intangible. He’s not talking about the quality of dance, but about its nature.

I feel the same way about poetry. Poetry saved my life. And so it came to me out of nature. The grain fields of wheat, flax, soybeans, corn, the groves, the animals wild and tame, pigs and chickens, cows, the horses, farm dogs and cats. The smell of granary bins full of just harvested grain, the yellow dried straw of the stubble fields, sweet timothy and alfalfa hay, acres of blue-eyed flax. Running behind my uncle’s plow, my bare feet in the cool just turned damp rich black earth. The prairie gulls swarming around and over us, landing on the tractor and my uncle’s shoulders.  I was awash in all of it and the Irish and the hilarious stories the farmers told as they drank coffee in each other’s kitchens.

Where is this idyllic childhood landscape that you remember so passionately and with such detail?

I didn’t know “poetry” then, I only knew myself in the world, a Minnesota earth of great flat prairie and farmland. One afternoon, I was nine or ten, pulling things from the precarious attic where if you stepped off a beam you would crash through the ceiling of the kitchen and land on the linoleum or the chipped enamel kitchen table or worse the burning stovetop. And where I was told never to enter for that reason. When I found a pamphlet of four pages with an Irish song printed in it. It rhymed, the notes gave it rhythm, the words jigged up from the page, and I knew instantly I’d found it. I didn’t know what it was called yet, or how much of it there was, but I knew this was my wormhole, this was me, this was how I could make sense, be in the world.


I found my intrinsic self that afternoon or it found me. Or we were both drawn together like two separate halves of one whole. One minute I was foraging aimlessly and the next I had a path and a mission. So I melded with the nature of poetry, without really knowing what it was. I melded with the intangible, the truly indefinable, the fleeting train whistle in the dusk. And that was how I came to poetry. Not through lessons, or lectures, or teachers, or children’s books. Not through theory, or form, or organized direction, or academia. Poetry’s very nature took me in.

Not to be too romantic about it, but there is a sound, a song that rises out of the rich black soil there. It’s in the tall oats swishing in the wind. It’s in the flax blossoms blue-eyed as the sky. It’s in the wild ditch grass swaying. And it’s in the joking and stories the farm neighbors share. In my work stories or abstractions of narratives intersect and meander through a similar remote landscape, negotiating a right to be there.

I see a relationship between your childhood pleasures in hearing old tales well told with the actualization of this kind of oral word play as the text to a song. You must have tried to recapture or renew that experience.  How did you go about doing that?

Definitely the connection between the evolving versions in Irish storytelling and the often sung, oral origins of poetry, has given me the meter of my lyric.  My use of spacing phrases, words, bits or snippets, or hanging a single word after a long space as though a lone granary or grove of trees suddenly appearing, isolated and interesting, in a vast endless expanse of flax and corn fields, springing out of that great flat prairie, is in the Minnesota geography of my blood. To me the page is a landscape, my lines are gravel roads or open pasture, and the words pop like silos into that space. In my work I use that space to slow time and focus on the single word as object. Language as head-on as singular objects in a landscape.

As a sophisticated adult you must have crossed many esthetic and formal bridges to end up where you did as a thoroughly modern poet. How does one go from “little house on the prairie” to “little apartment in Manhattan”? 

Though I returned to the farm for a number of summers, my mother had remarried taking my brother and I to California. My grandfather had raised the big, powerful draft horses until the tractor came in and that with the depression and drought caused him and my grandmother to lose their original farm with its beautiful house and barns. My great aunt Annie, his sister, owned a rundown, shabby farmstead which she gave to my mother’s family and that was where my mother and her siblings grew up and where I entered the picture. My grandfather still continued to raise some horses and my mother and her brother Pat grew into amazing horseback riders. My uncle Pat was 14 years old during the depression when he hopped a train to California and its racetracks and with his young boy size became a jockey.

By the time I came along my grandfather had passed away and my grandmother, my mother, her brother, my uncle Bud, and my aunt Monica had turned the place into a very functional small farm. In those days our place was too far from a town to have electricity, phone service, or running water. We had a well and hauled water and our evening lights were oil lamps.

Years later through her brother Pat, my mother met my stepfather who belonged to a racetrack family from South Dakota who also had gone to California. So we left the farm in Minnesota for the west coast. We moved often, following the racetrack fair circuit in the late spring and summers, and usually wintering near Santa Anita Race Track in Southern California.  I always read voraciously, painted, and scribbled my poems. Besides poetry I believe I read every book about horses and dogs in the Duarte Public Library.

So you’re a California transplant and you grew up as an equestrian, some might even say a “cowgirl.”  Your rather nomadic existence must have required that you entertain yourself.  I mean when you weren’t horseback riding.

 My mother’s daughter, I loved horses and grew up with plenty of opportunity to ride with our racetrack life. During one of our many moves all my paintings got left or fell off the top of the car where my stepfather tied things.  After that I gravitated more to language and writing, but I feel my poetry will always be grounded in painting. In using the page as a stretched canvas where description and placement and the word with both meaning and physical presence reign.

 You appear to have avoided drinking the English Major kool-aid that so many American poets imbibe.  Was it your intent to study literature at the university or were you an undeclared major? What was your formal and informal education?

 A year with the Jesuits at Seattle University freed my soul. I went to Seattle University to study with the Jesuits in the hopes of resolving a religious crisis that had been consuming me for most of my teenage years. The Jesuits proved to be the most honest and forthcoming teachers and questioners dedicated to a religious practice that I had ever met. I rinsed my soul searching in their discourses, class lectures, private talks, and pragmatic examples and left the church.

Then I returned to San Francisco and enrolled in San Francisco State where I avoided writing classes and instead, wandered the city, finding City lights Bookstore and the Beat Poets. I felt strongly that I shouldn’t enter into an English major. I felt extremely protective of my writing and concerned that I protect it from academic influence. I studied languages and anthropology at San Francisco State and searched the bookstores and streets for poetry. I didn’t know anyone. Our family was in dire straits. My stepfather had literally disappeared into alcoholism. I went to school days and worked from midnight to 8 a.m. at Western Union to help support our family.  The exhausting pace took its toll.

James & David Bearden, c. late 50's

James & David Bearden, c. late 50’s

Through a high school friend, Jim Bearden, back in Monrovia, whose brother turned out to be the poet David Bearden, I discovered a host of cool poets and happening writers including, Neal Cassidy, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Charlie Plymell and Lauren Owen.  I really had no idea how fortunate I was then, to be in that time and place, watching rough presentations of early Stan Brakage movies in apartment gatherings; listening to Neal run his fast talking hustler spins to con a few dollars or some grass; hanging and discoursing around that oak table, with all the apt shades drawn in secrecy, as a joint passed from writer to writer.

Your association with the Beat poets in San Francisco, in particular David Bearden and Charlie Plymell, must have made for some pretty heady times.

As I mentioned I met David Bearden through his brother, my good friend from high school, Jim Bearden. Jim was an incredible artist who could draw flawlessly. He was still living in southern California, but he made a trip to San Francisco to visit his brother and to see me. We went over to David and Judy’s and he introduced me to his brother who also wrote poetry. It was also my first introduction to a Bohemian “pad.”  They were the coolest people and we got on immediately. At that point in time I didn’t know who anyone was. I was just elated to be meeting other poets and writers. On another visit Charlie Plymell dropped over to discuss his printing ventures and on another Neal Cassady came in talking non-stop hustling Charlie for some cash and or grass.  Neal reminded me of all the hustlers I’d grown up with on the race track, but his rushing steady stream of words strung together out-languaged any of them.  Subsequently I became acquainted with Lauren Owen, Alan Russo, Roxie Powell, Bob Branaman, Richard White. The building David and Judy lived in, which I think was on Fell St in San Francisco and near to Charley’s, was home to a bunch of these folks. Lauren lived in that same building and there was a tall guy with glasses whose apartment we all met in to smoke grass. I’m not sure, can’t recall his name. Those were paranoid days. He would pull all the shades down before we lit up. Grass was fairly sacred and not abundant.  We would pass a joint around the table and maybe do a second one.  The first reading I ever heard was Richard Brautigan reading in a bookstore, I think City Lights.  I marched in Civil Rights demonstrations, was arrested in a car dealership sit in, spent a short night in jail and a lengthy trial. At the end of it, my interest in Zen Buddhism stirring, I sailed for Japan on the Sakura Maru with Lauren Owen, pregnant with my first child.

I personally found Japan to be totally exotic, a real culture shock. How was your introduction to Japanese culture and was it what you expected?  How long did you live there?

Lauren and I arrived in Japan in the Spring of 1965. We sailed from San Francisco into the port of Yokohama. We had little funds and so traveled third class in the lower decks of the Sakura Maru. A quite wonderful turn of events, as we found all our fellow third class passengers were Japanese. We felt like we were already in Japan. At night we watched Japanese movies in Japanese. Monster movies were popular and I saw Mothra for the first time. We didn’t speak Japanese, but had our little dictionaries of most frequently used phrases and practiced and listened to all this new culture around us. I loved being on a ship out in the middle of the ocean. It was an incredible feeling of freedom, as though by having lost sight of land, the rules and laws of the land no longer applied.  We did spend a couple of wild days and nights as the ship rolled and rocked in the tail of a typhoon.  Impossible to sleep as one had to hold on to something to keep from hurling across the floor.

Our plan was to hitchhike across Japan on our meager funds. When we docked in Yokohoma, we pulled on our backpacks and set out. We spent the first night sleeping in a cemetery overlooking the city. The large, chunky grave structures like little houses felt cozy and protective so unlike cemeteries in America. Setting out the next morning we discovered the Japanese had no idea what hitchhiking was. They would pick us up out of curiousity occasionally, but mostly we walked or took short train rides.  Japanese English teachers would invite us into their homes and to come and speak to their students, many of whom in the more remote towns had never heard an English speaker. They were wonderfully kind and excited. Our purpose was to visit various Zen temples and discuss satori with the Roshis of the temples.  Laughter at our intellectual approach seemed to be the lesson they tried to pass onto us.

And so we traipsed across Japan, sleeping in bamboo forests and in lovely futons on spotless tatami when we were invited for a night. It was amazing to be in a culture where the people thought so differently than we did. Not just that they thought different thoughts, but that their whole process of thought seemed to come from a different source.  The richness of tradition and fabrics and festivals, festive dinners where the diners recited haikus as they passed the sake cup, futons hanging on bamboo clothesline poles, the very air pulsed deepness and surprise.  But there were parallels too. In Japan a kind of Zen of Order prevailed that was familiar to me from my days on the racetrack and it’s meticulous raked and dampened shed rows, tack rooms lush with the aroma of saddle soaped leather  and from my years of Minnesota farmland its fields and crops aligned in perfect symmetry and displayed in perfect patterns of geography.  In the Japanese countryside the people we met were friendly farmers full of country kindness just like those back home.

mojapanWe traveled extensively and lived for a time in the port city of Tokushima and then in the small village of Ikeda, both on Shikoku, staying for two and a half years. Our two sons were born there, Ulysses in the small village of Ikeda and Patrick in Tokyo at the Railway Hospital.  Giving birth to my two boys in a foreign country allowed me to take part in a more intimate side of Japan.  The experience more visceral, more physical, I settled into the culture, my bare feet on the tatami, Ombu, carrying my children on my back, chewing food up for them instead of buying baby food, and experiencing a populous who truly love children. The Japanese delighted in their babies, in all children, their Zenness of letting children be children and truly not being angered at them.  I didn’t realize until I returned to America how much the general mood of my own country didn’t really like children.  Despite plenty of Americans being loving of kids, the larger theme, the presence that one lived in was one that instead of learning from children the great feeling that prevailed was one that found children irritating.  Having gone to Japan before I had children and then having lived in a culture that revered children, I was in fact in culture shock up on returning!

In Japan I gathered. I took notes. I scribbled ideas for works. My babies kept me busy and I was immersing myself in Japan. Only fragments of poems survive in my work from this period, but a wealth of change and process flow from it into every word I write to this day.

The last six months we moved back to Tokyo to raise money to return home as we had extended our two month visas to the absolute limit of times one could. In Tokyo we taught English at a business school run by a Korean fellow. There we met ex-pats and wanderers from countries far and wide, many of whom, though they were teaching English, could hardly speak it.

mo-erosion Is there some kind of eco-conscious relationship or significance to the titles of your two most recent collections of poetry, Erosion’s Pull and Edges of Water?

 My work has always been connected to nature, to the physical world around us. Country Rush, my first book, from Adventures in Poetry Press, developed during a year of living in a remote cabin in Missouri. We picked wild asparagus and dandelion greens, hauled and heated water, no plumbing, a wood burning stove, a bathtub out in the yard by the cistern—it was a year of feeling one with the earth.  I think growing up on a farm imports a lifelong consciousness of the importance of our ecosystem. You see firsthand how survival depends on caring for the soil, the water, the trees, the wildlife.

When I met you in 1979 at the Poetry Project, you had been living in New York City for about ten years then and were the Program Coordinator at the Project.  You were also a single mother with two children.  How did you become involved with the Poetry Project, and how did you manage to keep up your level of participation at the Project and as a writer while raising your two children?

I arrived in New York the summer of 1968 and having the good fortune to be with Lauren Owen who was one of the Tulsa poets, a group that included Ron Padgett, Joe Brainard, Ted Berrigan, and Dick Gallup, and mightily involved in the art and poetry community. It was through the good fortune of being with him that I landed in the fabulous New York poetry world.  I immediately met the most insanely wonderful, greatest poets and writers, who have been the most important people in my life ever since. I was at a party at Peter Schjeldahl’s when the brutal attack on the Peaceful demonstrations in Chicago came on the TV.

maureenown_011We lived on 13th St between avenue B and C, just a short walk from the Poetry Project. For the first time in my life I found myself in the heart of an art and poetry community. I had two little boys, but I went to readings at the Project as often as possible, buying the boys lots of comic books to keep them happy during the reading.  I started helping with the set up for the readings and various.  I was producing my mimeo magazine, Telephone, and mimeo Telephone Books. When offered the job as coordinator I felt like I’d come home.

The boys were in school so that gave me daytime hours and for the evening readings and workshops Lauren and friends helped take care of them. On other nights I wrote after putting the children to bed until about 2 a.m. regularly. It was during this period that I began the years where I usually got about 4 or 5 hours sleep a night.

When you met me in 1979, I had completed that dance-like movement of “from the arms of one man into the arms of another” and had moved out of the city. Now I was training in on the Metro North and had a third son, but definitely help from my partner, Ted Mankovich, and local childcare.  I’m sure I was sleep deprived in those years, but the zines and books and the Project overflowed with the most exciting poetry and swept me along.

 In the late 60’s early 70’s the dearth of publishing opportunities for women poets unaffiliated with academic institutions motivated you to start your own publishing concern, Telephone Magazine and Telephone Books.  Was there any single incident or moment that acted as a catalyst to start you on this enterprise?

Not so much a single catalyst as a sudden realization.

Anne [Waldman] was publishing the Project’s mimeo magazine, The World.  I was meeting some terrific unpublished poets, so many of them women, and through The World was publishing great works, there were those not finding a way in.  I wanted to give the women writers I was finding and that outlier community a voice.  At readings I would be knocked off my chair by their stunning poems that were nowhere in print. It’s so incredible to discover poems that take your breath away.  I’ve always craved making things, hands on, making collages and such. So naturally I thought I could create a magazine.  I wanted it to be eclectic and open to all like the telephone book. So I christened it Telephone. Almost immediately I realized I would do books too. I would call the press Telephone Books! Once I put my idea out to myself, it felt the most natural thing of all.

So I asked Anne if I could use the Gestetner mimeo machine at the Project to do a magazine.  In her typical utter generosity, she said “sure!” Of course I had no idea as to the process. Larry Fagin kindly gave me instruction on how to type a stencil:  How to Type A Stencil 101. And Tom Veitch offered to teach me how to run the massive Gestetner, add ink, load the stencils, etc. Often, after I put the boys to bed with Lauren or a neighbor watching over them, I could be found working alone upstairs in the big, dark, spooky and haunted church, the loud clunking of the Gestetner echoing as I rolled out the copies. St Marks is notorious for being haunted by Peter Stuyvesant. It’s said you can hear his wooden leg smacking the floorboards after midnight. There alone, I heard his walking many a night as I cranked the big wheel on the mimeograph machine and turned out page after stunning page of glistening wet black letters that floated on the white paper.

moteleTom ran off the initial issue of Telephone magazine for me. It was a magic moment when the first pages rolled off the drum. It seemed both a miracle and a magic trick that all those typed stencils were working. I had done illustrations with a stylus, holding the stencils up against a window to trace the original. They appeared fully perfect. I was astounded.

I was meeting a number of artists on the Lower East Side as well as writers and so their cover art on various issues was a fabulous addition.  The whole project was a community of creative artists and writers coming together.  Once the magazine was run off, we collated the pages in the Parish Hall at St Marks.  Everyone in the community was so fantastic. Vast numbers of contributors, artists, poets, friends, and family showed up to collate.  We would have pizza, wine, and soda, pages would be gathered, and the sound of the stapler snapping them together would be ringing.  Once in a while a section of pages or a cover would be collated upside down or the stapler would wound a finger and the blood of the poet would smear across a page.

All there would take copies to distribute.

Your experience in New York City at this time places you in an interesting historical context.  Were you aware of the affiliation of poets that were later to be called the New York poets or the New York School?

It was a world filled with poets and artists the likes of which I had never dreamed possible. I didn’t think of the historical context. I lived utterly in the “now” of what was going on, being painted, being written. Hands on doing the work filled every day. I felt continually amazed and inspired and astonished at the magnitude of creative people gathered in one place in time. We were a movement of pure energy, individual extravagance, great courage and a raging belief in the works we were making. All totally committed to a new, bold, fresh, exciting direction.

Did you realize that what you were tapping into were hypnagogic hallucinations, that you were recording quasi dreams on the frontier between sleep and wakefulness when you were writing the poems that were eventually published as Zombie Notes

mozombieThough a great fan of the surrealists and that quasi state between sleep and wakefulness, I didn’t intentionally set out to write in that form. Zombie Notes came about quite pragmatically. I had three children, a job, and all the rest. I tried to be the best mother possible and didn’t write until after I put the boys to bed. I would usually sit down at my typewriter about 10 pm and write until one or two am. Then I would get up at 6 to get the boys off to school or day care and go to work myself. This was my pattern day in and day out and I’m sure I was sleep deprived during those years. I would try to stay awake while writing, but would often drift in some nether state barely awake, not quite fully asleep.

I don’t think it was an official dream state as Bernadette (Mayer) or Loraine Niedecker draw from, but more a tangled exhaustion of thought. The title Zombie Notes perfectly described my state of mind. I seemed a zombie during those hours.  I would often just catch myself up as my face fell toward the typewriter keys, saving my teeth from smashing at the last second, and then a line of poetry would stumble from my fingers.

When you say “I feel my poetry will always be grounded in painting. In using the page as a stretched canvas where description and placement and the word with both meaning and physical presence reign,” I sense an esthetic commonality with the collaborative efforts of artists and poets concurrent to your time in New York.  Were you influenced at all by the art literature mix or was it just a happy accident that you shared a similar esthetic? 

Having the fabulous mix of artists and writers working together in collaboration expanded all possibilities. And again, just to be in the midst of that powerful making of works, in that “now” happening all around you, conjured up an incredible release of experiment and support for that experiment. What an invite to freedom!  Certainly this was not the first time art and text have mingled together on the page or canvas, but it was a push further out into that discovery of entanglement.  It was a leap into a new mind chemistry of the elements of text and paint.

In love with both, I felt fully engaged in this common ground. I collaborated in individual works, in drawings and covers for my books, in Telephone magazine and books. But text set the stage for my poems. My painterly art was in the language now. I created the “picture” with description. I focused on the words creating more explosively the image than it could be set down in brush or pencil. Language had become my oils and acrylics. I was rowing toward my own sea.

 moedgesYour most recent selection of poems, Edges of Water, was published by Chax Press in 2013. What projects, books, literary events are you currently engaged in? Are there plans for a selected or collected poems of Maureen Owen?

The poems I’ve selected to accompany our interview are from a manuscript in progress with the working title, Everything Turns on a Delicate Measure.  I’m still in the thick of writing it. Possibly it could be a new and selected, but right now I see it more as a separate title. A selected or collected would be something to think about.

Maureen Owen Recent Work

Maureen Owen Reads for the Bad Shadow Affair 

Maureen Owen Home Page

New To The Society’s Shelves

Norman Schaefer, Lower Putah Song, The Alcuin Press, 2016
Alastair Johnston, Dreaming On The Edge, Oak Knoll Press, 2016
Daniel J. Demers, Old Wine And Food Stories, 2016

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A Precursor to Haiku

A Precursor to Haiku

Excerpts from the introduction to Poetry For Sale, Haikai no Renga (Linked Verse) with poets Keith Kumasen Abbott, Sandy Berrigan, Gloria Frym, Steven Lavoie, Joen Moore, Pat Nolan, Maureen Owen, Michael Sowl, and John Veglia (Nualláin House, Publishers, 2015).

By Pat Nolan

bashopondredbdrHaikai no Renga is collaborative poetry of Japanese origin normally written by two or more poets linking stanzas of 17 syllables and 14 syllables according to specific rules governing the relationship between stanzas.  Haikai collaboration can be as complex as chess, as multi-dimensional as go, and as fast-paced and entertaining as dominoes.  It is as much about the interaction of the poets as it is about what gets written.  The forward progress of its improvisation is akin to that of a tight jazz combo. Haikai composition has also been compared to montage in experimental film where the discontinuity of images and vectors achieves an integral non-narrative expression.

Haikai no renga is known variously as renga, haikai, renku, and linked poetry.  Generally the term renga is applied to an older, more traditional style of linking poetry practiced by the aristocracy and the upper echelon of medieval Japanese society.  Haikai no renga means “non-standard renga” though it has often been translated as “mongrel” or “dog renga” which places it in the literary hierarchy as common entertainment.

In the introduction to her seminal study of Matsuo Basho’s haikai no renga, Monkey’s Raincoat (Grossinger/Mushinsha, 1973), Dr. Maeda Cana offers a further explication of the word haikai.  “The main characteristics of the haikai are partly discernible in the kanji or Chinese characters which make up the words haikai and renku: hai denotes fun, play, humor, and also actor or actress, and kai friendly exchange of words; ren represents a number of carriages passing along a road one after another and has the meaning of continuing to completion while ku is expressive of the rhythmic changes in speech and denotes end or stop.”

Renku is a literary game of high seriousness valuing cooperation and rewarding intelligence as well as intuition.  A poet’s erudition and sense of language are called upon to clear paths and build bridges that will meander through the landscape of a literary garden.  Its cooperative result, a balance of unpredictable language gestures as insubstantial as smoke but possessed of a palpable humanity, is what is important.  The echo of the response, its relationship to the previous stanza, and how it extends its meaning, poignantly or allusively, is the esthetic ground for this kind of poetry.  The linking process, in renga, and in haikai, allows a sequence whose subtle oscillation of playfulness and gravity walk the tightrope of language’s built-in ambiguities.

Seasonal themes dominate in haikai no renga. Japanese culture and esthetics prize expressive response to the natural world as its lyric mode.  “The classification in linked poetry is simpler,” Earl Miner states in his ground breaking study, Japanese Linked Poetry (Princeton, 1979), “there is the sense that a given stanza has but one of two kinds of main topic, season and miscellaneous. . .with subtopics of love, travel, grievance, Buddhism and so on.”  Haikai no renga allows for humor, common idioms, and the more mundane, sometimes scatological aspects of existence as opposed to traditional renga, viewed as exclusive, rigid, esoteric, and ritualized.

As an example of haikai no renga styles, and the poets’ eye for humor and fashion, their ear for wry social commentary, Miner translated the following stanzas from Poetry Is What I Sell [The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat,  p 380 ] as written by the renowned Basho with his partner Kikaku who Miner characterized as “in some ways . . . the most dazzling haikai poet.”

 Winter drizzle at Yamazaki
he joins in the umbrella dance
a bamboo grass design
figures his lounging kimono
dyed a classy blue

— Basho

A bamboo grass design
figures his lounging kimono
dyed a classy blue
under clouds at the hunting grounds
he yearns in vain for the young lord

— Kikaku

Under clouds at the hunting grounds
he yearns in vain for the young lord
the house’s first daughter
has now grown up in the household
of the village headman

— Basho

The house’s first daughter
has now grown up in the household
of the village headman
“The Gossip Is She Snores Like Thunder”
was ordered as the poetic topic

— Kikaku


At the height of its popularity in late 17th Century Japan, renku were composed by groups of poets over the course of an evening that included blossom and/or moon viewing, food, and liberal portions of rice wine. The assembled poets belonged to a haikai group, a kaRenga sequences are primarily group efforts although there are examples of dokugin, solo renga composition, most notably by the poet Sogi (1421–1502), of one hundred stanzas or more—thousand stanza renga were not unheard of either. The thirty-six stanza sequence known as a kasen was one favored by Basho and his disciples, the number thirty-six having a special cultural reference, the Thirty Six Immortal Poets.

rengasessionjPoems were spoken and copied down by a scribe. The renku master, known as the renkushi, might adjust a line or word, comment on the linking, even reject links too similar to previous stanzas. Socially these haikai groups were comparable to a loose aggregation of musicians coming together on special occasions to put into practice what they know of the form and to test their virtuosity in cooperative composition.  “Generally speaking, haikai is steeped in the wit and banter” as Dr. Cana explains, and “it has a brilliance that shocks.  Such brilliance is continual and amazes. . .at every turn.”  Poets are under pressure to produce the unpredictable so that the possibilities of cleverness are continually exploited at a tempo that is swift and witty.  The haikai poets of old delighted in word play, literary allusions, double entendres as well as displays of authentic sensibility. The completed renku is as much a certificate of cooperation as it is a multi-page poem and a sequence of short poems.  Its literary value is in its effervescent spontaneity and transitory nature, a quality much appreciated by the Japanese.

haikaiI was encouraged in my curiosity about haikai no renga by the poet and calligrapher Keith Kumasen Abbott, a long time friend and associate, who steered me to the publication of Earl Miner’s Japanese Linked Poetry in the late seventies.  Professor Earl Miner’s explanation of linked poetry, its history, its prosody, in this study, and in the subsequent The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat (Princeton, 1981), formed a solid grounding for my understanding of haikai no renga and the composition of haikai.

p4sale15tjMost of the innovations and adaptations of method in Poetry For Sale can be credited to Keith Kumasen Abbott and his deep understanding of the form. It was his suggestion that the opening verse of the haikai, generally designated the ‘guest’ hokku, be taken from haiku literature, both traditional and modern, and explains why the renku can open with a stanza by Buson as well as by Jack Kerouac.  Abbott created the order of participation, known as the ‘batting order,’ as well as introducing what are designated as ‘specials,’ the flower and moon stanzas in their predetermined position in the sequence.  He also determined that the length of the haikai sequence would consist of thirty-six linking stanzas known as a kasen.

The idea of doubling the stanzas to place emphasis on the linking process rather than the individual stanzas was Keith’s as well. This was done to emphasize, as Professor Miner noted, that the linking of stanzas produced a unique 31syllable poem resembling a tanka and was to be appreciated outside of the sequential flow of the renga.  In essence, each linked stanza creates its own poem as well as contributing to the integrity of the sequence.  The repetition of the stanzas serves as a speed bump for Western readers who are used to reading a column of verse in narrative succession and who might miss the subtlety of the unique linking. Professor Miner’s method in his careful exposition of haikai was to repeat the verse to draw attention to the linking process.  The doubling of stanzas became a feature of our own renku even though that aspect does not exist in the original compositions of Japanese linked poetry.

The renku were written at a remove rather than in a group setting since the poets involved lived at a distance from each other, and that meant the links were sent through the mail (before the ubiquity of computers and email).  Accompanying the linked stanzas were often rationalizations as to why a particular link was chosen or that a previous link was particularly effective, and so on.  In reading these conjectures and motivations, the idea occurred to me to include comments by the authors on their particular links and those of their collaborators.  Miner had shadowed his representations of haikai no renga with a commentary on each of the links in his texts, and that method was borrowed for our own purposes.  Dr. Maeda Cana had done something very similar in Monkey’s Raincoat by way of highlighting process in Basho’s haikai no renga.

Professor Earl Roy Miner (1927–2004), our haikai guide through the agency of his writings on Japanese linked poetry, taught at Princeton and was a noted scholar of Japanese literature.  Earl Miner’s The Japanese Tradition in British and American Literature (1958) underscored my attitudes about the importance of Asian literature in the formulation of a personal poetry esthetic. His thorough exposition on Japanese court poetry, Introduction To Japanese Court Poetry (1968), gave relevance to the evolution of renga and haikai no renga, as did the tradition of the poetic diary, Japanese Poetic Diaries (2004), and was essential to my understanding of haikai no renga.  At one point I contacted Professor Miner and revealed myself and Keith as adherents to his views and methods of Japanese linked poetry.

Professor Miner’s response was cautiously appreciative—we were not the first to knock at his door looking for validation—yet his sincerity in assessing our renku was encouraging. In a letter dated February 16th, 1987, Professor Miner acknowledged a sample of linked poetry entitled Bird Feeder Renku by thanking me for my letter and the enclosed “English haikai or renku.”  He went on to write, “I have seen a number of attempts to do versions of linked poetry in English, and I think yours the truest to the spirit of the Japanese. . .I did enjoy your work and would like to see what you finally come up with.  You are on to something interesting, and there are Japanese friends who would be interested in what you are doing.”  If nothing else, Professor Miner’s reply reinforced my determination in continuing with collaborative efforts in linking poetry.

Subsequent correspondence with Professor Miner confirmed that I was doing something right.  In a letter dated January of 1995, Professor Miner thanked me for sending him a copy of Cloud Scatter (Tangram, 1994), a selection of what I called tanka but technically tan-renga (single links), adding that he had been asked by Michael Cooper to review Edwin Cranston’s large book of waka translations, A Waka Anthology (Stanford, 1993) for Monumenta Nipponica.  “My response,” the letter continued, “was an omnibus of waka studies of many kinds and forms, and I included some samples of your work that I particularly admired.”  Unfortunately, Miner’s wide ranging opinions were beyond the scope of the presentation, and he was “reluctantly” made to abide by the original brief.  “You will find with this [letter] the few remarks about you that I squeezed into my frustrated effort.”  The outtake Professor Miner provided quoted a few of my tanka with the comment, “If waka is to take seed in our soil, its leaves must also be those of English words.  Many people have essayed haiku in English, and some have done tanka that I find superior.” And “With these Dickinsonian sudden rays is a sound as of poetic linking, and it is not surprising to read in the accompanying letter, ‘Some friends and I have been linking verse (by mail) and calling it renga for almost ten years now.’”  In honor of Earl Miner’s overwhelming influence on the way I collaborated on linked poetry, I nominated the core cohort of haikai poets “The Miner School of Haikai Poets,” relishing as well the homophonic pun.


Basho by Keith Kumasen Abbott

Keith Kumasen Abbott outlined his understanding of how to proceed in an afterword to Bird Feeder Renku, the one I had sent to Professor Miner.  He begins by citing a linguistics professor of his who stated “that unless one were born into them, the Japanese language and baseball were equally difficult to learn.”  Writing renku, Keith explains, can be added to that list with the caveat that “the poetry has more irrational rules than baseball and is largely confined to the Japanese language.”  As with all the linked poetry we wrote over the years, no claims were made that any of them followed all the myriad rules of haikai no renga.  However, certain notions and intuitive understandings gleaned from Miner’s texts were observed.

Among the guidelines we adhered to was the idea that, as Keith put it, “two linked stanzas may be read together as a unit, but no three stanzas may be read together without some disruption of either time, place, tone, character, or speaker.  All stanzas “[e]xcept for the opening and closing stanzas has to therefore be read twice.  Once, as an end to the preceding stanza.  And again as a start to the following stanza.”  This understanding of the doubling of the stanza emphasizes a key element of the linking process.  As Professor  Miner explained it, “The essential fact to understand is the inviolable principle that no stanza has a continuing semantic connection, as a discrete poetic unit, with anything other than its predecessor or its successor, linked in continuity at each point of juncture but otherwise discontinuous” has the effect of undermining any sense of plot or conventional narrative.

This aspect of subverting the narrative thrust, insisting on a discontinuity in linking poetry, is also what makes haikai so appealing.  Keith explained it this way: “Since lyrics have a way of ending conclusively, in renku the lyric feeling of any stanza threatens the narrative feeling.  Too strong, and the sequence doesn’t seem to proceed, but ends prematurely.  Conversely, a strong narrative link obviously endangers a lyrical link, grounding it in action rather than feeling.  Since with renku a continuous plot is impossible, the narration rests on the conflicts and resolution of image and style, not character or fate. This is one reason why there are so many stylistic rules for writing linked verse in Japanese, where certain stanzas have to contain a moon or flowers, certain types of words have to be employed in specific places, etc. These rules help guide the writers into finding continuity without a plot.”

One of the most obvious strictures in the writing of renku as well as that of haiku is the syllable count.  However, adherence to the rule in a non-Japanese language can render the stanzas somewhat prosaic, lacking the perceived concision that it seems to have in the language of its origination.  Many non-Japanese writers of haiku and renga have eschewed the syllable count in their compositions for something that tries to simulate the deceptive simplicity of the Japanese language.  There is no easy linguistic comparison of either language.  For instance, in Japanese, ono is counted as three syllables.  On the other hand, in English, unceremoniously consists of seven syllables.  Some rules, as Keith proposes, can be stretched. “Traditionally the three line stanzas contain 17 syllables in a 5-7-5 pattern, and the couplet contains 14 syllables in a 7-7 pattern.  While many of our stanzas contain the proper syllabic count, rarely do they fall in the proper syllabic line counts.  This irregularity occurs because we both are cadence-oriented poets and Pat and I prefer to let the language fall in its appropriate measure of spoken speech, keeping its American tone.”

six-poetsjThe Japanese scholar Haruo Shirane in his excellent study, Traces Of Dream: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho (Stanford, 1998), talks about what he calls haikai mind, the ability to anticipate relationships between stanzas and how they might fit together like molecules in a chemical chain or juxtaposed as disparate images in experimental cinema.  Abbott is talking about something very similar when he points out that among Japanese critical terms “there is something called the haikai change, referring to the quickness and adroitness of the shift from a scene into another time and place.  Sometimes this involves a change in the sex of the character, apparently much easier to do in Japanese than in English, and often the effect has a peculiar flavor of comedy.  A serious stanza can become suddenly ironic, teasing or very funny with the addition of another.  Naturally this appealed to Pat and I.  Not only are we both writers in the tradition of the California Zen poets, Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder, we were also raised on American film comedy and its rapid manipulations of point of view.”

As an example, in one of our early renku, I presented Keith with a stanza:

 long into the wee hours
“I already answered that question!”
—heat lightning

And he returned with:

—unfaithful—bored—she tried
lying even to her housemaid

Abbott explained our adaptations and improvisations thusly: “Since the verse does occur in links, we wrote them trying to explore these possibilities, attracted to the challenge of discontinuous scenes forming an aesthetic whole.  In some ways our renku resembles an experimental film shot on a minimum budget in each of our backyards, work places and home towns.  Jumpcuts, fast fades, slow dissolves, pull backs and tracking shots are all familiar techniques easily employed in writing renku, with the most common technique being the match cut where an object or person in one scene is abruptly shown in another milieu altogether in the next.  Speaking stylistically, it is possible that a link can be couched in the most common language of a setup in a film script, and sometimes this resonates with suggestive brevity.  Often, changing sex of the characters, the links wind backwards (in chronological time) from old age through domestic discord to a love affrair fading out in a possible soap opera TV commercial.”

Haikai composition has obvious similarities to film making (or editing) in that the stanzas are spliced together in a relationship or juxtaposition that appears discontinuous but when viewed on completion reveals an intuitive or visceral unity.  Each stanza is an image, or multiple images, in relation to each other, viewed close up or distantly, symbolic as well as representational (scene setting, environment) and presented as a complexity of responses, neutral, active, or passive.  The composition of haikai is loaded with unpredictability resulting in random, dream-like, metamorphoses.

The end result, the text of a completed renku session, can be viewed as the recording of an ensemble’s nuanced and spontaneous intellection.  Dr. Maeda Cana, in her introduction to The Monkey’s Raincoat, summarizes the effect of successful composition: “As the mind of the reader passes from one short scene to another, there is created an illusion of movement in time and space, relentlessly onward through the vicissitudes of life.  Probably because of the associative undercurrent ‘linking’ the verses in each sequence, a haikai does appear as an integrated symbolic picture of human existence with its figurative joys and sorrows, its critically decisive moments, tragic inevitabilities and flitting humor.  The transitory incidents of life are somehow made to appear as ubiquitous realities in the cosmic continuum.”  For the haikai poet, being moved to spontaneous expression defines poetic activity and illustrates an esthetic whose basic tenet is that the consistency of human character lies in appropriate awareness, not in dramatic overreaction.

Parole Officer’s Note: The opening stanza of haikai no renga, the hokku, eventually morphed into its own independent verse form, the haiku, in late 19th Century Japan.

Poetry For Sale, Haikai No Renga is available through Nualláin House, Publishers, for $16 US plus shipping and handling.  Go to the Nualláin House, Publishers site here to access a description of the book and ordering information from the How To Order menu option.

New To The Society’s Shelves:

Norman Schaefer, Lower Puthah Song (The Alcuin Press, Portland, 2016)
Francis Steegmuller, Apollinaire, Poet Among Painters (Rupert Hart-Davis, London, 1963)
Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity (Duke University Press, Durham, 1987)
Robert Hébert, Derniers Tabous (Note bene, Montreal, 2015)
The Poetry Project Newsletter, #248, October/ November, 2016

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Commonplace Discoveries: Lew Welch

Commonplace Discoveries: Lew Welch 

A Talk by Philip Whalen

I don’t know what was happening at the time Lew wrote this poem, Springtime in the Rockies, Lichen; I presume it must have been around the time that he was down here at Greeley. They asked him to do a summer poetry thing at Colorado State; he seems to have manufactured this poem around that time. I don’t know how it got into its present position [page 123, 1973 edition] in Ring of Bone, I’ll have to ask Donald Allen that. “The Song Mt. Tamalpais Sings” comes first, then there’s the “Olema Satori” poem, then there’s the “Sausalito Trash Prayer” …

Mt. Tam photo summitTamalpais is the mountain that’s just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco as you’re going north. The old road went through Sausalito and then on up to Mill Valley and Santa Rosa and so on, going north toward Oregon. But now a big freeway just continues as you come off the Golden Gate Bridge, you zoom on this big freeway and across overpasses and you don’t go through Mill Valley or a hundred other small places. After you go through the tunnel that goes through the little mountains directly above Sausalito, you come out the other side of the Waldo tunnel at the top of the Waldo Grade and you can start seeing Mt. Tamalpais, which dominates the center of Marin County. It’s only about 2300 feet high, it’s not a high mountain, but since it’s coming up right off the coastal plain it looks quite imposing. The Indians thought that it looked like a sleeping lady; I think that’s what Tamalpais means.

It’s been of interest to us to construct it very slowly into a magic mountain or to restore its magic by very traditional means—not black magic, but magic magic. We started this process around 1959 by performing circumambulation of it and reciting sutras at various points around it. Actually Locke McCorkle started and then the rest of us continued from time to time. There was one time when Ginsberg and Snyder and I actually set up specific altar spots around the mountain. It’s funny, that sort of formal trip was done first in maybe 1964 and we all wrote poems on that occasion, at each of those places. It wasn’t until much later that the Zen Center was given, at a greatly reduced price, the Green Gulch Farm, which is right at the bottom of Mt. Tamalpais and more or less includes Muir Beach where the wobbly rock is that Lew writes a long poem about in here [Ring Of Bone]. It was a place where we had gone in the early ’50s to collect mussels and roast them on the seashore, drink wine, and laugh a lot, before Gary went to Japan the first time in 1956.

Marin County is very interesting, you’ve probably read a lot of nonsense about it in the press; it’s even been satirized by the comic strip called Farley – and it’s very funny. It is, to a large extent, ridiculous what happens there. But physically it’s quite beautiful, it’s extremely varied landscape. In places where there are little valleys, little gulches, or little canyons, there will usually be water and redwood trees. Then you come out of the little gulch or canyon and up onto a ridge or a meadow and there’s a sudden change of vegetation, there are California Live Oaks and brush, grass, more typical California hot and dry quasi desert. If you get over right on the ocean side, again there is a mixture of Live Oaks and Cypresses and meadows; and then in among the rocks you’ll find kinds of succulent plants growing, kinds of sedum and what are popularly called “hen and chicks”, things people usually see in someone’s cactus collection. So you have all these kinds of things going on within a very short distance from each other, a strange feeling. There’s one open hillside in the village of Tiburon which is now protected by the State, it has more kinds of California wildflowers than almost any place else in the State, and nobody knows why. If you visit there in the spring season, you can see kinds of plants that you can’t see anyplace else; it’s a very strange botanical phenomenon.

ringofbonejpgIf you live outdoors enough and stay alone enough and walk around enough, you tune in on landscape and it becomes important to you; and you like places, you like the way things go together. When Lewie wasn’t too distracted with dope and alcohol and problems of all kinds about money, he always enjoyed himself out of doors and spent a lot of time out of doors. He was always making wonderful commonplace discoveries that made it possible for him to write poems like this one. But the time between the discovery and the manufacture of the poem, I don’t know how long that would be. He tended to work things over mentally for a long time before he ever actually wrote anything down. He would have it in his head, and be adjusting it and thinking about it and then getting new ideas about it and rearranging it in his head some more and adding to it maybe, before he ever set down even a fragmentary version on paper. Then that in turn would be altered considerably before he finally would have a typewritten version, that he would tell you was no good. Then somebody would ask him for a poem and he would finally recopy that typewritten version with maybe another change or so and send it out. That’s what would appear in print.

I first saw this poem in the shape of a printed broadside. I can’t remember who printed it, whether Clifford Burke [of Cranium Press] did it or a guy in Berkeley with Straight Arrow. Anyway, it’s quite a handsome broadside. What we’ve got now is “Springtime in the Rockies, Lichen:”

All the years I overlooked them in the
racket of the rest, this
symbiotic splash of plant and fungus feeding
on rock, on sun, a little moisture, air–
tiny acid-factories, dissolving
salt from living rocks and
eating them.

Here they are blooming!
Trail rock, talus and scree, all dusted with it:
rust, ivory, brilliant yellow-green, and
cliffs like murals!
Huge panels streaked and patched, quietly
with shooting-stars and lupine at the base.

Closer, with the glass, a city of cups!
Clumps of mushrooms and where do the
plants begin? Why are they doing this?
In this big sky and all around me peaks &
the melting glaciers, why am I made to
kneel and peer at Tiny?

These are the stamps on the final envelope.

How can the poisons reach them?
In such thin air, how can they care for the
loss of a million breaths?
What, possibly, could make their ground more bare?

Let it all die.

The hushed globe will wait and wait for
what is now so small and slow to
open it again.

As now, indeed, it opens it again, this
scentless velvet,

this Lichen!

In this poem he’s got a whole complicated set of notions going on. Does everybody know what lichen looks like, what lichen is? It’s flat, you look at it and you just see flat, sometimes it looks like a splash of paint, and you don’t think about it, you see color and you say oh, that’s lichen. Actually they’re quite primitive plants and they grow in the most untoward appearing places. They grow in the Arctic and in the desert; all sorts of places where you wouldn’t expect to find anything, there are lichen happening. They go through phases of dormancy when they turn all kind of black and dusty and look like they’re totally dead. Then if the seasons change and a certain amount of moisture comes around they start lighting up again and opening up and functioning. They’re able to survive quite severe changes in climate and seasonal changes without perishing. They really are very successful creatures. They are successful perhaps, we’re told in biology class, because of the fact that they are a symbiotic arrangement; they are two things that live together to make one apparent organism. In this case it is a fungus and a kind of algae; an algae and a fungus mixed up together make a lichen. Goodness knows how that got started. If you have any interest in the start of such phenomena, incidentally, there’s a marvelous book written by a very smart woman at Yale University, called The Evolution of the Nucleated Cell [Origin of Eukaryotic Cells, by Lynn Margulis Yale University Press, 1970]. It’s all about how at first there was undifferentiated protoplasm rolling around in the ocean, organizing itself out of the chemicals in the water. Nobody knows why yet, but for some reason protoplasm started building up out of amino acids rolling around in the water, perhaps because of an electrical discharge. After a while they learned to clump together and make what we think of as protein molecules; of course protein molecules are what living material is made out of. Presently I think, according to this lady’s theory, there became different kinds of protein molecules; some of them were more complicated than others and at some point these two different kinds of viable protoplasm got together to make a symbiote. The first known symbiote was a nuclear cell. The animal or creature, whatever you want to call it, that became the nucleus joined up with this hitherto unnucleated but growing undifferentiated protoplasm; so you began having a cell that was distinguishable, it acquired a wall and the nucleus had the function of conveying the genes and so on, so that the thing reproduced itself as such, as an amoeba for example. And everything continued on from there. Among the kinds of amino acids and whatnot in various protoplasms, supposedly the materials we now know as RNA and DNA started going at some point; maybe they were responsible for the symbiosis of the first primitive nucleated cells. Anyway, it’s an interesting book to look at.

(A curious literary manifestation of this rather complicated book is a play by Michael McClure called The Feather which has been produced in Berkeley. I saw a performance late in 1971. It’s one of the more entertaining of his Gargoyle Cartoons, you’ll find it in the book called Gargoyle Cartoons.)

crustose_lichens_lgSo, lichen go back a long time in the history of the development of plants; they are quite ancient ones that are still around. Usually things develop and then fade away; but we have other curious hangovers, like cockroaches, for example, which have been the same for a good many million of years. They seem to be perfectly adapted to doing anything and everything. I think in the mammalian order things like rats have succeeded where many others have failed.

So Lew Welch says, “all these years I overlooked them in the racket of the rest, this symbiotic splash of plant and fungus feeding on rock on sun, a little moisture, air, tiny acid-factories, dissolving salt from living rocks and eating them.” I think that there might be a mistake there, he might have written “salts.” That’s one of the things that happens if you have a lichen sitting on something. In the process of its taking in moisture and carbon dioxide it excretes acid, which attacks the rock it’s sitting on; the acid in turn breaks down the goody and makes it into something else. So he sees them as tiny acid factories dissolving salts from living rocks and eating them. It isn’t usually fashionable to think of rocks as being alive. We like to think of the planet, we like to think of nature as being controllable and as being dead—it’s just matter, you can treat it any way you want to; rocks are simply stuff you can throw around. He says they’re alive and they’re being devoured by these little plants. He doesn’t say what the rocks think about it, he just says this is happening. I do remember “living rock” as a phrase, something I carved from the living rock; somebody was talking about the city of Petra in Arabia, or maybe they were talking about the caves at Ajanta, carved from the living rock in India. It’s a literary phrase, in so far as the rocks at Ajanta were all carved into relief statues, so they looked alive. But Lew is talking about the rocks being alive, being devoured just like animals eat each other. So it’s a life process, it’s not simply a chemical process, it’s life going on.

“Here they are blooming! Trail rock, talus and scree, all dusted with it.” What is the difference between talus and scree? I don’t know where we get that word, talus means something like field, I think, in Latin; and scree, I don’t know where we get that either. It might be a funny English word, maybe borrowed from Welsh, like many mountain climbing terms are. If you read books about mountain climbing, you find people talking about cwms for example, [pronounced “cooms”], meaning a little valley. Because many English people who became celebrated mountain climbers practiced or learned some of their basic techniques on the mountains in Wales where they do rock climbing—which is quite as dangerous and difficult as any in the world, partly because of the nature of the rock and partly because of the foggy climate, which makes it impossible for you to see where you’re going a lot of the time and makes the rocks wet. Then of course they would go on to climb in the Alps and end up in the Himalaya.

So he says these colors are there, “cliffs like murals.” I can’t remember seeing an entire cliff painted by lichen quite that elaborately, but Lewie says he did, and there it is. “Huge panels streaked and patched, quietly with shooting-stars and lupine at the base.” The shooting-star is the flower that I was taught to call “bird bill” up in Oregon. Actually it’s a kind of native cyclamen which grows in Europe and the United States. Lupine is a kind of a thatch plant that has very handsome spikes of blue and white flowers, yellow sometimes.

“Closer, with the glass, a city of cups.” If you look at lichen under a magnifying glass quite often you’ll see they have a kind of cup shape where they grow quite closely together; you might see that if you have a small pocket glass. You see a whole raft of them, he says you see a city. “City of cups” is quite a lovely phrase. It brings to my mind the tarot deck, one of the suits of the tarot is cups. I don’t know whether he had that in the back of his mind or not, he was never terribly interested in all that kind of stuff.

“Clumps of mushrooms and where do the plants begin? Why are they doing this? In this big sky and all around me peaks & the melting glaciers, why am I made to kneel and peer at Tiny?” This is something that’s quite unusual in contemporary American English, to have an object be given a pet name; people used to do it in more sentimental poetry in the Nineteenth Century. I don’t think there’s a sentimentality here, but there certainly is an affection.

What do you think are the answers to these questions? Do you think that Lewie knew what the answers were? Where do the plants begin? That is to say, you can’t see when you’re looking down with your hand glass at it, where they start and leave off and if there are other mosses and mushrooms and things mixed in with them, you can’t tell where things begin and end. And, as I was saying, the beginning of anything is floating around in some ocean a long time ago. We all begin together, actually, although we never remember that. “Where do the plants begin, why are they doing this?” Well, they’re doing this for the same reason that everybody else does everything, they’re all full of those curious chemicals, that double helix unwinding itself to make what we think of as life and death and history.

whalen welch

Snyder, Whalen, Welch

“In this big sky and all around me peaks & the melting glaciers, why am I made to kneel and peer at Tiny?” Human and otherwise, we like to look at things. This of course is part of our training when we’re quite small; we’re told, look at that, isn’t that pretty. I can remember distinctly seeing a number of things that were pointed out to me as pretty which I could not for the life of me connect with that word or with the emotion of the person who was explaining to me that it was “pretty,” meaning that it was of value and that it was nice and they liked it a whole lot and that I ought to, etc. Well, if you say so. We’d be driving someplace and people would point out the window and say, look at that view over there, it’s just gorgeous. I would look out the window—you look out a window and what do you see out of it? Traveling in the window, when you’re in a car, you see the fence posts speeding past, the telegraph posts, or you might suddenly see a cow standing in a field. The way of looking out a window and seeing it composed as a landscape was a faculty which I had to develop much later, I certainly didn’t possess it when I was small. It wasn’t until much later that my eyes began failing, so I don’t think it could have been nearsightedness at that age. It was a simple disconnection between language and experience, between what was real and what wasn’t, some lapse in communication on my part or on the part of my parents. In any case it was very difficult to indoctrinate me with proper feelings. Many proper feelings I have never been able to acquire, I’m sorry to say. So in many ways I’m a failure. The habit of going to pieces at Christmas time, for example, I have a great deal of trouble with that; I cannot be terribly interested in the joy that you’re supposed to have. Various other things of that kind, especially the public examples that everyone is supposed to participate in, have always been difficult. Things like, let’s all sing now; I’m just sitting there, fuck. Sing, schming. I love to sing, I’ll sing in the bathtub or if I’m by myself or with two or three other people, sometimes I include some song in a poem; but not if somebody says, all right now we’re all going to, because we’re glad or because it’s fun, aren’t we having fun? This of course was usually accompanied, when I was with my family, when I was small, with threats and accusations of ingratitude, which were very hard to live down.

So the reason we look at things is we’re told that things are pretty or ugly or certain things are to be looked at and certain things are not to be looked at; we’re programmed to respond to things in a certain way. Why am I made to kneel and peer at Tiny? Ideally, I suppose, as far as I’m concerned, because Lewie was a friend of mine, I think that he was looking because he was interested, and because he was attracted by the color and, ultimately, because he was always, like all of us, looking for himself. We never look for ourselves in the middle, we always look outside for everything, because outside is where reality is, we think, and that’s what we’re told we ought to have and we ought to go for it: it’s outside there, it’s better, it’s wonderful, it’s expensive, it’s hard to get, and everybody ought to have it. I think that in this case—Lewie being a poet and being excited by seeing this cluster, this city of cups that doesn’t start or stop anywhere—what’s happening is all of a sudden he’s really turned on, really excited, and so he’s looking, looking to see out there and always, because he doesn’t understand himself too well, looking for himself.

Then he says, “These are the stamps on the final envelope.” That’s a great piece of news and I think at that point the poem should have stopped (just between you and me; you’re not supposed to listen, Lewie, in heaven). But I think that he has delivered his whole message right there. He could have moved that line, maybe, to where it says “Let it all die,” and moved that line down at the bottom. In any case, that’s the poem almost, in that one line. Like the title, “These are the stamps on the final envelope” is a splendid poem. But he’s telling you why—it’s interesting. And suggesting of course that it would be a good idea if you went out and looked at some lichen once in a while, and found out that it was possible to be turned on by looking at these otherwise ignoble or who cares kind of creatures. The thing is, if you do, you’ll find out more than you bargained for. These are the stamps on the final envelope.

Of course he explains about the final envelope, “How can the poisons reach them? In such thin air, how can they care for the loss of a million breaths? What, possibly, could make their ground more bare?” which is quite beautiful, an interesting way of arranging sounds. And of course it’s talking about the air that’s killing us all; the lichens are likely to survive is what he’s saying, I suppose. How can the poisons reach them? they’ll just turn them into more lichens, likely, something we’re not able to do to ourselves. “How can they care for the loss of a million breaths?” That is to say, if a whole lot of animals and people died, they would just continue to operate anyway. “What possibly could make their ground more bare?” That is to say, their ground being bare rock, which he suddenly forgets is living; what possibly could make their ground more bare is the disappearance of themselves, I suppose. What could make it more bare? Well, of course, being burnt and disintegrated by the forces of a fusion bomb would make it barer for a while, certainly if it turned into glass. “The hushed globe will wait,” that is, hushed because there’s no more breathing going on, “the hushed globe will wait and wait for what is now so small and slow to open it again.” Although if the places where the rocks are all fused into glass in spots, as quite often happens where there’s that intense kind of heat that is produced by a hydrogen bomb or a nuclear explosion, it’s unlikely that a lichen is going to attach itself to a piece of glass – it hasn’t happened yet and the possibilities of its happening are slim, unless there’s some mutation in which a lichen decides that it would like to go into the business of dissolving silicon salts out of glass and living on that. “The hushed globe will wait and wait for what is now so small and slow to open it again.” Lichens grow at a very low rate. They’re small, as he says, and it takes years for them to get into a patch big enough for you to notice. The globe of the world will break down again, crack open, by this stuff as “indeed, it opens it again, this scentless velvet, crumbler-of-the-rocks, this Lichen.”

As you know, when the lichens break down the rocks, part of the salts they eat and then the silicon parts and other bits that are indigestible simply become what we call sand. Then eventually the body of the lichen plant itself dissolves away into humus, eventually that’s the basis of where other things can grow. Even while the lichen is still alive quite often fern spores and other seeds get involved with it and start growing because there’s that moisture there and there’s a hole, a spot for them to grab onto in the actual body of the lichen. So a lot of other plants get started from that patch of lichen on otherwise bare stone. “It opens it again, this scentless velvet, crumbler-of-the-rocks.” If you touch some kinds of lichen it feels quite soft. The thing that’s interesting is, it comes up about how the rocks are breaking up and even with the phrase, “this lichen”—there’s a poem that is doing very much the same thing, written by a dear friend of Lewie. Not me and not Allen Ginsberg, somebody older. There’s a trip that William Carlos Williams goes into about saxifrage, about the stone crop, the one that breaks the rocks. Maybe Lew was remembering Williams’ poem, but I kind of doubt it. He knew the poem of course, but this one is a kind of grand-child of that saxifrage poem, which is rather short.

So on the one hand he foresees some eventual catastrophe that is going to take away a million breaths and then he says, “Let it all die,” because it’ll all start over supposedly, in some way. The idea of the destruction and renewal of the universe is an ancient religious notion we still are stuck with to a certain degree. It means more or less to anybody. Just at this point, please remember all the roaring I was doing recently about how things are alive and people ought to realize it and take care of them, and not think of ourselves as masters of all we survey or as controllers of this dead matter we can push around any way we want to. The rocks are alive; everything is alive. The final envelope, the last message, is please turn around and don’t drop those things. Although something will survive, it ain’t going to be you. It might be these lichen, which are very nice things and are going to make a new start, probably, after you’re gone. But what is it that lichen are doing? They’re sitting there very quietly growing, very slowly, and not bothering anybody. They don’t even get involved in the whole bee and flower business. They’re just sitting there, spreading out and being pretty. Maybe as far as Lew was concerned—like he says, they make these murals—maybe I’m straining at a gnat to swallow the camel again about how the whole poem is metaphorical, being about art, being about people who are creative like they say nowadays, people who paint and write poems, by being quiet and working slowly and turning purple, will last, will endure, will do something when everything else is gone. That may be an extrapolation, which Lewie wouldn’t allow, he might at that point say, oh come on. But when somebody leaves a cryptic note—“I never could make anything work out right and now I’m betraying my friends. I can’t make anything out of it, never could. I had great visions but never could bring them together with reality. I used it all up. It’s all gone. Don Allen is to be my literary executor, use mss. at Gary’s and at Grove Press. I have $2,000 in Nevada City Bank of America, use it to cover my affairs and debts. I don’t owe Allen G. anything yet nor my Mother. I went Southwest. Goodbye.”— and walks off into the wilderness and leaves you all his poetry to handle, it’s his own tough luck if people extrapolate.

                                                                        —Naropa University, July 28, 1980




Philip Zenshin Whalen (1923-2003)
American poet, Zen Buddhist



New To The Society’s Shelves

Bill Berkson/Joanne Kyger, Amsterdam Souvenirs, Blue Press, 2016
Lee Perron, Fourteen Poems of Transparence, Sun Moon Bear Editions, 2016
Joanne Kyger, 2012, Blue Press, 2013
Gary Snyder, The Life Of Creative Translation, Bancroft Library, 2013
John Brandi, Cloud Pavilion, a Kyoto Suite, Bancroft Library Press, 2013

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Don’t Mess With Bill

Don’t Mess With Bill; An Appreciation

berksonhatPoet and art critic Bill Berkson achieved personal entropy in San Francisco on Thursday, June 16th, 2016 at the young age of 76.  June 16th also happens to be Bloomsday celebrated around the world by aficionados of James Joyce’s Ulysses.  Writers’ lives are bracketed by the simulacrum of literature, an exoskeleton of sorts, no matter what their personal life or relationships are like, and Berkson’s was (in more ways than one) a perfect example.  If you’re going to make an exit, this date is certainly loaded with literary resonance.

As someone born of money and social standing Bill Berkson can be said to have come into the world with a silver spoon in his mouth. Berkson was also fortunate to have a silver nib on his tongue.  Talent alone, however, is no guarantee of notice, and it helps to be well situated.  As his obituary in the New York Times points out: “In the artistic Manhattan of the 1960s, when the small worlds of experimental poetry, film, theater, visual art and dance bled into one another, an animated figure seemed to appear everywhere at once. Bill Berkson was the ever-present third man from the left in the group photographs that chronicle the era.” 

Berkson’s apparent Zelig-like ubiquity in the New York art scene is misleading.  As a native son, stylish Manhattanite , epithetic New Yorker with a solid Fifth Avenue café society pedigree not to mention classic photogenic good looks, it was the  less comely among the artists and writers who flocked to crowd into the photographs.  Berkson’s appeal, aside from his eye/arm candy attributes, was his sophisticated earnestness and a sense of aristocratic noblesse oblige.  As the son of Seymour Berkson, the publisher of The New York Journal-American, and Eleanor Lambert, a celebrated fashion publicist known as the “Fashion Queen of New York,” he benefited from a privileged upbringing in intellect and sophisticated tastes.  Educated at the prestigious Trinity School whose alumni include Aram Saroyan, Jim Carroll, Oliver Stone, and Humphrey Bogart, he also attended the equally elite Lawrenceville School in New Jersey where he began his studies in poetry in earnest, encouraged to study Dickinson, Eliot, Pound and Gertrude Stein and winning prizes with his essay on Eliot and original poetry.  Matriculating to Brown University in 1957, he soon became aware of contemporary poetry represented by the Beats and the New York poets including Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery and eventually moved on to study poetry at The New School under the direction of poet Kenneth Koch who introduced him to the rudiments of modern poetry.

In his biographical note in An Anthology of New York Poets (Random House, 1970) he lists the development of his influences under Koch’s tutelage: “through his teaching, by Williams, Reverdy, Auden, Stevens, Michaux—then of course, O’Hara and Ashbery, and Koch’s own work, or more exactly, his way of seeing funny details.  Translation of Cendrars and Aretino.”  Berkson’s enrollment at The New School coincided with the renewed interest by certain of the literate intelligentsia in non-Anglo literature, particularly the early 20th century French writers, but also the Russians and Spanish—actually anything, even ethnopoetics, to get out from under the stultifying atmosphere of Anglo hegemony.  It was also a time when the art scene was driven by a post-war prosperity and worldliness: Abstract Expressionism achieved its legendary status, galleries became the social centers for the cultured elite, and enthusiasm for modern dance was intense and passionate.

Berkson was in his element at the crux of art and poetry for which he would sustain a passion for the next 50 plus years of life. The New York Times obit recalled that “Mr. Berkson moved easily in this heady milieu, his striking good looks and insatiable appetite for the new affording him instant entree. His friends were legion, an endless roll call of the geniuses, provocateurs and poseurs who gave the decade its distinctive cultural tang.”  In a soon to be published memoir, Berkson placed himself squarely on the cusp of transitions in generational attitudes and esthetics, “I am almost certainly the only person who was at both the Woodstock Music Festival and Truman Capote’s Black and White Masked Ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1966.”

In 1968 Berkson, by then also an instructor at The New School, published Best & Company, a collection of poetry and art representative of unaffiliated younger poets and artists in his milieu as well poetry by the implied figureheads of the previous generation that included Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, William Burroughs, and James Schuyler.  Best & Company also featured the work of Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman and many of the poets who would be featured two years later in the New York poets’ anthology.  In Best & Company, Berkson’s eye and ear for the modern categorized an esthetic that was uniquely quotidian and anti-establishment. By rejecting the conventions of the conservative Anglo-American academy, Berkson defined a “School of New York Poets” with his inclusive gesture, one that would unfortunately soon be reviled as the work of self-indulgent poseurs and self-aggrandizers by those whose entrenched literary establishment applecart they had upset.  The poets in this collection are flip, audacious, impudent with a hip self-possessed edginess derived in part from their association with the New York art scene, both pop and avant-garde, and whose horizons went beyond the dominant glot and outdated strictures of Anglo literocracy.

berksonrecentIn 1970 Berkson moved to the then little known community of Bolinas on the California coast just north of San Francisco.  There he established Big Sky, an art and poetry magazine, the name, according to Kevin Opstedal’s monograph on the Bolinas scene (Big Bridge Vol.3 #4), suggested by lyrics in a Kinks song: Big sky looks down on all the people.” By maintaining his hand in the art and literature mix Bill played an important role in keeping the New York school esthetic alive, an avant-garde modernism tied to a contemporary global art culture.  Opstedal also reports that “Berkson’s original editorial stance was to accept ‘whatever arrived from those invited to contribute.’ After the first two issues he found this method too ‘chaotic’ and devoted the third issue entirely to work by Clark Coolidge. Thereafter he became a more selective editor.”  Berkson edited and published 12 issues of Big Sky from 1971 to 1978 featuring a cast of local poets such as Joanne Kyger Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Bobbie Louise Hawkins as well as many of his former associates from the New York scene including Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, Andrei Codrescu, Lewis Warsh, Steve Carey, Tom Clark, Anne Waldman, Maureen Owen, Bernadette Mayer, Anselm Hollo, and Allen Ginsberg.  In addition to the magazine, Berkson also published a series of Big Sky Books featuring the work of individual authors, among them Joe Brainard, Joanne Kyger, Steve Carey, and John Thorpe.

berksonpg1Encouraged after teaching a graduate seminar in art criticism at the California College of Arts and Crafts, Berkson joined the staff of the prestigious San Francisco Art Institute in 1984, organizing public lectures and teaching art history and literature. He was the Institute’s director of letters and science until his retirement in 2008.  Throughout his career as a poet and art critic, Bill Berkson emphasized the close relationship between the visual arts and poetry through his numerous collaborations with artists such as Joe Brainard, Philip Guston, Norman Bluhm, Red Grooms George Schneeman and Alex Katz.  His most important collaborations, however, were not with artists but with another poet, Frank O’Hara.

Berkson accorded the role of mentor to Frank O’Hara. “General cultural education with Frank O’Hara: the Stravinsky-Balanchine Agon (and Edwin Denby’s essay on it), Satie (we created four hand ‘annoyances’ at various apartments. Once played for Henze in Rome), Feldman, Turandot, a certain Prokofiev toccata, Virgil Thomson (I had heard a recording of Four Saints at Harry Smith’s, Providence, 1957). Movies. . .we read Wyatt together, recited Racine, skipped through galleries, collaborated on The Hymns of St. Bridget 1961-1964. . .” as he states in the 1970 biographical note to the New York poets anthology.  But Berkson also exerted his own unique influence on the older poet.

Brad Gooch’s 1993 biography of Frank O’Hara, City Poet, highlights the importance of O’Hara’s friendship with the younger poet in a chapter entitled “Bill’s School of New York” taken from a poem of that title. Berkson’s introduction to Frank O’Hara, the biography indicates, came at a time when, harried by the demands placed on him as a curator for the Museum of Modern Art, O’Hara’s poetic energies were flagging, and that the young, bill-berkson-and-frank (1)handsome poet was instrumental in reviving the older poet’s interest in poetry.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that as a young poet in his twenties, Bill Berkson served as a muse to the older poet evidenced by almost a dozen poems directly mentioning Berkson in the title or dedicated to him, in particular, the tour de force, Biotherm.  As well, there were the numerous F.Y.I. poems which functioned as private communications between O’Hara and Berkson, mimicking interoffice memos in which O’Hara appropriated the abbreviation of For Your Information and improvised his own variations such as F.M.I, F.O.I, etc.  Their collaborative poem, The Hymns of Saint Bridget, is a testament to the compatibility of their artist sensibilities. It might even be argued that O’Hara’s controversial off the cuff “Lana Turner has collapsed” written on the Staten Island Ferry enroute to his reading with Robert Lowell was dashed off in a fit of virtuosity to dazzle his young protégé.  The personally intimate jouissance of O’Hara’s style is on full display in Bill’s School of New York.

He allows how some have copped out
but others are always terrific, hmmmmmm?
Then he goes out to buy a pair of jeans,
moccasins and some holeless socks. It

is very hot. He thinks with pleasure that
his first name is the same as de Kooning’s.
People even call him “Bill” too, and
they often smile. He feels rather severe

actually, about people smiling without a
reason. He is naturally suspicious, but
easily reassured, say by a pledge unto death.
He likes to think of windows being part

of life, you look at them, they look at
you, why not? Passing the huge white Adam
sculpture in the Musee d’art modern he
was heard to fart. He likes walls to be

white, sculptures to be colored. He provides
his own noise. He is kissy and admires
Miró. Though his head is feathery, his
chronologies are very serious. He has a

longer neck than you might think. About
Courbet he seldom thinks, but he thinks a lot
about Fantin-Latour. He looks like one,
Corner of a Table. At the Frick Museum he

seems rather apache. He likes tunafish
and vodka, collages and cologne, and
seeing French movies more than once.
He is most at home at the Sidney Janis Gallery.

In Frank O’Hara’s poetry Berkson found a witty vernacular spontaneity that gleefully transgressed poetic conventions in ways similar to their artist contemporaries who rewrote the book on painting.  Collaboration with artists was also a distinctive feature of the New York poets, their affiliation with visual arts paralleling that of the Surrealist’s to painting, experimental cinema, and photography. Berkson’s grounding can be found in the shared congruency of visual art and text, a trend that had its modern beginnings with Baudelaire, and one characteristic of the New York School. In a certain sense, Berkson could be considered the Andre Breton to O’Hara’s Apollinaire, a modern day counterpart to the pontiff of Surrealism, but true to his place on the zodiac, working quietly, behind the scenes, championing an interdisciplinary compatibility that resists the predictable presumptions of English majors.  He contributed frequently to Art News and Arts as well as Artforum, Modern Painters, and Aperture among other publications. He was also a corresponding editor for Art in America.  His monographs and critical essays on artists such as Guston, Theibaud, Warhol, and Franz Kline are currently collected in two volumes, The Sweet Singer of Modernism & other art writing 1985-2003, with cover painting by Alex Katz (Qua Books, 2004), and Sudden Address selected lectures 1981-2006, with cover drawing by Philip Guston (Cuneiform Press, 2007).

The Modernist painting connection is clearly reflected in Berkson’s approach to poetry, something he referred to in a 2015 interview on PBS as his “sense of scatter.” In the same interview he stated “I used to worry about not having a signature style or central subject matter or a fixed character of poetry, and at some point the worry ceased. I gave myself permission to do what I’ve been doing all along without worrying about it.”

For over 50 years and in almost two dozen volumes of poetry, Bill Berkson developed what has been described as “a freewheeling, idiosyncratic style” based on an affection for found phrases and their resident poetic qualities, an acute sense of droll constructions which Kenneth Koch had taught him to appreciate, and that can, at times, be “conversational, epigrammatic, elliptical, whimsical and surreal.”  Nonetheless, his poetry has edges, the obdurate discernment of a Virgo, the no-nonsense succinctness of his early influences, fellow Virgos Cendrars and Reverdy, and a clarity of expression that can seem aloof, confident, formidable, even forbidding, originating in an artistic vision that has affected a serious transformation in American poetry.

Expect-DelaysBerkson continued his preoccupation with art and literature, contemporary and historical, from Dante to Bernini, jazz to The Wire, and Rothko to Russian poetry in his 2014 selection of poems from Coffee House Press, Expect Delays. He also hinted at an emerging breakthrough in his approach to writing poetry.  In a note to the selection, he speaks of his awareness of how technology changes the way one does business and how his use of the computer shaped his more recent compositions. “Eventually after three or four years, looking over my accumulated desktop notebook materials, I saw that these more or less impulsive jottings had gathered a sort of intrinsic order that needed only minimal nudging from me to fall into place.  I went for a format that could hold together the range of things—occasional lines, poem fragments, prose musings, scraps taken from reading, dream records, memory shots; stray uncategorized notions, quiddities, and so on—that happen ordinarily in hand written notebooks, but that occurred here with the more formal edge of being already ‘typeset’.”  What Berkson had come across in the use of the word processor and its cut and paste potential is a method familiar to film editors, of taking disparate elements and splicing them into a seemingly narrative whole while remaining open ended.  It is a method eerily similar to the way the poet Philip Whalen worked, but long before the advent of the personal computer.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Philip Whalen’s poetry was also a subject of great interest to Berkson.  They had been neighbors in Bolinas for a time. He had published the Zen poet in issues of Big Sky, and was more than passing familiar with Donald Allen’s Four Seasons Foundation editions of Whalen’s work.  He was, as well, instrumental in arranging Whalen’s 73rd birthday celebration at the SF Art Institute in the 1996.  Berkson understood that in the modern American canon Whalen’s importance loomed as large as that of his original mentor, Frank O’Hara.  In an email exchange discussing Whalen’s epic length Scenes from Life at the Capital, he states, “That book was my guidebook in Kyoto 2006. I had a running conversation with Philip throughout my Kyoto stay, and it’s all there in facsimile edition of Japan 2006/2010 notebooks. . . .”

Consistently a presence on the avant-garde’s leading edge, Bill Berkson developed and maintained a sophisticated and unique sensibility. He kept an ear to the ground for the latest in the literary arts with an intelligent attention and curiosity that was as untiring as it was focused, constantly on the lookout for innovation and the new. Although Ted Berrigan’s oft quoted, “If Bill Berkson is New York school, the rest of us are reform school” speaks of a social divide, it was Berkson’s distinctive vision of the developments in art and literature among his contemporaries on his home turf that bridged that gap. His contribution to American poetry was to bring together under a loosely defined rubric, the School of New York Poets, a generation of independent writers and artists in tune with contemporary counter culture, from pop music and art to the ever shifting postmodern ground that characterized the global influences of the late century era.  In retrospect and given the passage of time, Bill Berkson’s importance as a poet and a definitive authority on modern American arts and literature on the cusp of the millennium will be more fully appreciated.

Submitted to the Membership by the Grand Poobah, 7/31/2016

New To The Society’s Shelves:
Jim Wilson et al, A Second Book of Renga, (Sebastopol, 2016)
Alice Notley, Benediction, (Machine Letter Press, 2015)
David Hinton, Hunger Mountain, (Shambala, 2012)
Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres & Other Late Essays, (University of Texas, 1986)
Jerome Rothenberg, Diane Rothenberg, Symposium of the Whole,
(University of California Press 1983)
Joel Dailey, ed., Fell Swoop #143, (New Orleans, 2016)
Joel Dailey, ed., The Southern Testicle Review, (New Orleans, 2016)
Tom Weigel, Mambo, (Fell Swoop #144)

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Philip Whalen’s Rhythmic Inventions: Thelonious Monk, Calligraphy and Zen Principles
by Keith Kumasen Abbott
(Originally published in Paul Kahn’s New Magazine #3, 2007)

img_whalen_02xSince You Asked Me
This poetry is a picture or graph of a mind moving, which is a world body being here and now which is history . . . and you.  Or think about the Wilson Cloud-chamber, not ideograms, not poetic beauty; bald-faced didacticism moving as Dr. Johnson commands all poetry should, from the particular to the general . . . .  My life has been spent in the midst of heroic landscapes which never overwhelmed me and yet I live in a single room in the city— the room a lens focusing on a sheet of paper. Or the inside of your head. How do you like your world?
 —Philip Zenshin Whalen, Memoirs of an Interglacial Age (1961) 

“…the biggest kicks in music is Rhythmic Invention; the tune is the easy part, etc.  which, I hope, is what my poetry is, if anybody had ears to hear, feet to tap. Chaucer, Skelton, Ben Jonson, Dryden, Pope, Shelley, Blake, Hopkins, Yeats”
—Philip Zenshin Whalen, journal entry:11:IX:67

“[Whalen] is a greatly learned man, more in the mainstream of international avant-garde literature, . . . a man of profound insights and the most delicate discriminations. It all seems so effortless, you never notice it until it has stolen up and captivated you, the highly wrought music of his verse.  It all sounds so casual and conversational, . . .”
—Kenneth Rexroth, With Eye and Ear (1970)



Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinensis (Praise Be Our Chinese Forefathers) embodies three of Whalen’s interests—first, his adaptation and/or assimilation of blues or jazz techniques.  Whalen’s rhythmic experimentations are evident in his manipulations of accent and tone via shifts in diction, syntax and grammar, his unique morphing of meter for syncopation inside regular measures, and his use of the line lengths, enjambment and spacing to speed or retard time.  A Thelonious Monk composition, Rhythm-a-ning, was chosen as a title to highlight Whalen and Monk’s shared idiosyncratic skills for rhythmic improvisations.

Second, Whalen adapts and/or assimilates Chinese, Japanese and Buddhist artistic principles, such as brush practice its aesthetics and epistemology.  “This poetry is a picture or graph of a mind moving, which is a world body being here and now which is history . . .and you.”  This artistic credo mirrors Shodo, the way of the brush, where changing relationships of man, heaven and earth are experienced live in painting and calligraphy.

And third, his adaptation and/or assimilation of Zen concepts of compassion occur within Whalen’s ruminations on our human passions and our teachers–but with humor.   His brush sketch of two Chinese Zenbos with its hilarious sleeping tiger, three wine cups, wine cask and plum blossom float above his idiosyncratic Italic pen calligraphic version of Hymnus and exhibits the confluence of these three interests.



Whalen’s short lyric poetry offers us several characteristics: his rhythmic musicality, his startling imagery, and his remarkable and often comic freedom of his diction and vocabulary.   His ability to shift vocal gears—from mutters to acerbic social commentary up to joyous prophecies—creates his irascible and mercurial Zen monk personae: we experience closely this character’s wide range of his best and worse moods.

Whalen’s pioneering inventions were founded on his traditional lyric forms such as the ode, epigram, hymn, or ballad.  Traditional subjects, such as praise of past poets, epigrammatic portraits, pleas to the muse and witty renditions of lovesick blues, tested his powers of innovation.  Just as one of Whalen’s favorite musicians, Thelonious Monk, re-arranged church, big band, Tin Pan Alley and Harlem stride music for his own artistic ends, Whalen felt free to adapt and restructure his poetic models.  Whalen’s originality, humor and musical ability allowed him to shadow, parody or mime previous metrical conventions as he places them in new frames and combos.  In his youth Whalen played piano, read music and studied music theory.  Although in an interview he modestly downplayed this training, he admitted that on the organ he still played Bach, Buxtehude, Sweelinck and Frescobaldi.  What interested Whalen was

“ . . . what form in time is, which is what music actually does.  . .even in a Bach Invention or in the Well-Tempered Clavier you get this, or I eventually got around to where I was feeling these shapes or forms arranged and moving in certain ways and at the same time making a composition. . . .” (Off the Wall, Interviews with Philip Whalen, 1978)

These forms in time include counterpoint, harmony, syncopation and improvisational rhythmic techniques.  In his writing he couples those skills with low to high diction, Buddhist koans, American folk sayings and/or popular songs, Tin Pan Alley burlesques and/or vaudeville routines.  (See Endnote for samples of the appreciative fascination of Monk by Whalen and his artist friends in the 1950s.)


A Close Reading                                                                                               

Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinensis 

I praise those ancient Chinamen
Who left me a few words,
Usually a pointless joke or a silly question
A line of poetry drunkenly scrawled on the margin 
                 of a quick splashed picture—bug, leaf,
                 caricature of Teacher
on paper held together now by little more than ink
& their own strength brushed momentarily over it

Their world & several others since
Gone to hell in a handbasket, they knew it—
Cheered as it whizzed by—
& conked out among the busted spring rain cherry blossom winejars
            Happy to have saved us all                        
                                         31: VIII: 58

The poem starts with the formulaic phrase, “I praise . . . .” a standard for Latin or Greek hymns and/or odes.  However off-hand and colloquial this poem sounds, its rhythmic changes are remarkably complex and bear a close reading to confirm what Rexroth claims is “the highly wrought music of his verse.” In Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts (2007) Clive James reminds us in an essay on American jazz, “For syncopation to exist, there must be a regular pulse.”  Throughout this poem Whalen improvises syncopations off a ballad’s iambic tetrameter, trimeter, and also off iambic pentameters, often concealing and rearranging these cadenced metrical structures within enjambed lines. Whalen’s enjambment of cadences creates contrapuntal improvisations and metrical compressions against their primary rhythms.

Whalen opens with an unrhymed English ballad four/three measure, a four-beat iambic first line the stresses on every other syllable. (Stressed syllables in bold)

I praise those an-cient Chi-na-men

He follows with a three beat variation of that iambic line, changing the stresses at the third and sixth and seventh syllables with two anapests and a syncope foot of one single stress.

Who left me with a few words

These rhythmic variations to the couplet create syncopation off the iambic feet: every other accented syllable changing to every third syllable accented before ending on a single stress “words”—the first of several metrical compressions that Whalen uses to cut new rhythms.

Then an aside doubles and condenses the four beat/three beat pattern into one line.  The first four stresses shifting from a trochee followed by three iambs, followed with a caesura and then the second half after the caesura he syncopates the last three iambic feet with three trochees.

U-su-al-ly a pointless joke / or a silly question

The tone of a nicely haphazard afterthought conceals a complex pattern.   The accented last syllables in “U-su-al-ly” creates an inversion for an internal rhyme by an unstressed or weak last syllable rhyme on “or a sil-ly” and so this internal rhyme also produces syncopation.

Zen art’s penchant for demonstrating impermanence is described in the next three lines while simultaneously Whalen’s rhythms extemporize by compressing the meters, their quantitative duration and tempo. The fourth line opens with iambs; then it reverses on the fourth accent to a trochee and back to a single stress –ly for an irregular iambic pentameter. These two words echo the syncopated internal rhyme “usually/or a silly” before it.

A line of po-e-try drunk-en-ly  / scrawled

The words po-e-try and drunk-en-ly create an internal end rhyme with similar iambic accent patterns.  However  “po” a short vowel and “drunk” a long vowel slows down the line, despite the light “try” and “ly” rhymes.

Then Whalen’s mimetic rhythm drags the tempo down further into a bleary alky moment when, after the caesura, the long vowel “scrawled” signals a variation from the blank verse of the first cadence.  Whalen’s three accelerating pentameter cadences are simultaneously compressed by enjambments and short choppy diction. (Underlined words are assonantal unstressed or stressed rhymes.)

A line of poetry drunkenly /scrawled on the margin of a
quick splashed picture/bug, leafcaricature of Teacher/

These three submerged blank verse lines are sparked with assonantal rhymes of quick, pic- and –ic.   To my ear these last two pentameter cadences end in jazzy percussive high hat cymbal sounds mimed by the three internal “-ur/-ture/er” feminine or unaccented rhymes.  Whalen concurrently alternates a very complex, volatile and rapid construction/expansion with a deconstruction/condensation of poetic measures here.

Both the poem’s aural and visual presentations recall Martin William’s remarks on Thelonious Monk’s similarly rhythmic expansions and contractions and what this technique achieves.

 “on ‘Five Spot Blues’ . . . an archaic triplet figure is elaborated within a traditional framework. It is perhaps a measure of Monk’s talent that he is willing to undertake something so totally unpretentious. And yet in his solos, he stretches out that little triplet motif, then abruptly condenses it into half the space it is supposed to occupy, embellishes it until it is almost lost, then rediscovers it and restores its unapologetic simplicity. Almost anyone with an ear for melody and rhythm could follow him exactly, I think, yet in its small way ‘Five Spot Blues’ is also a measure of his sense of order, of his rhythmic virtuosity, his originality, and his greatness.” (Williams, quoted in Leslie Gourse’s Straight, No Chaser,1997)

Williams’ description applies to Whalen’s opening six lines and explicates some of his percussive and compressive strategies, sonically.

HAPSTo shift to the Italic version, visually in Whalen’s eccentric calligraphy these three lines compress and hump up—losing any sense of the proper right angle guideline for Italic script.  And these shortened lines also are embellished with festive ascending letters (f, k, l sh, l, f and h) and descending letters (q, p, p g, f, and f).  And just for a visual emphasis Whalen scribes a disproportionately tall plain T on Teacher, a brief serif at its foot, a nod and a wink to a formal Italic calligraphy’s normal swash serif capital letters.  Of course, just as Monk was able to play “Five Spot Blues” straight, Whalen was perfectly capable of performing a standard calligraphic version, with properly proportioned letters in straight lines and accepted angles.  But these calligraphic irregularities perform as a jazz improv while also embodying the asymmetric Zen aesthetic.

For Zen brush works D.T. Suzuki says (Zen and the Japanese Culture, 1959) the art must radiate mugaku no koto or “a thing of no learning” which is produced by the state of “no-mind (mushin) or of no thought (munen).” An acolyte artist’s long training first produces multiple copies of great calligraphic works and this ideally allows the acolyte to access that artist’s spirit without any trace of training. As D.T. Suzuki notes the performance of a Zen sword master or artist arises from “the fluidity of mentation and the lightning rapidity of action.”

Whalen’s brush cartoon of the two sages with three wine cups lounging behind a drowsy or drunk tiger (with a suspiciously dragon-like snout and a drunk expression) radiates Zen fluidity of perceptions with rapid brushwork, while the rhythms of his Italic calligraphy also embody those traits as the poet himself announces in his poem that strategy (“quick splashed picture”).  Whalen’s celebratory poem, painting and calligraphy visually glow with mushin; Whalen’s “mind moving . . . is a world body” could stand as an alternate translation of Shodo. 

What is worth also noting stylistically is that literal translations of Chinese verse characters often may be rendered as “bug, leaf, caricature Teacher” before adding any usual English articles and/or prepositions.

                 “a/the bug, a/the leaf, a/the caricature of a/the/my/our Teacher

Such run-on shortcuts in English also recall the percussive musical phrasing and blocky syncopated rhythms of Thelonious Monk.  Monk may improvise on a Tin Pan Alley melody, say “Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” by rearranging a few notes or chords from a measure of Harold Arlen’s song.  He drops the rest of the song’s melodic phrasing or chord resolutions so he may enter into improvisations off selected notes and/or chords, doubling, tripling or sustaining them to fill out the usual bars.  Writing out their lyrics as Monk plays them, something like this cadenced four/three ballad pattern emerges (sustained notes or chords in Bold caps):

BeTWEEN the/ the devil AND/between the DE/ DEVIL and//
devil deep BLUE/ BLUE sea SEA  

Martin Williams, in The Thelonious Monk Reader (2001), describes this technique thusly:  “The core of Monk’s style is a rhythmic virtuosity. He is a master of displaced accents, shifting meters, shaded delays, and anticipations.  There he is a master of effective pause and of meaningfully employed space, rest and silence. Fundamentally his practices in harmony and line are organized around his insights into rhythm.”

Each pause, hesitation or thunderous sustained chord at end of a measure become aural blinks, where the mind clears and/or resets, in the same way a cut in film signals change. Like Whalen, Monk’s improvisational skill creates new ways of hearing an old tune and marks off new measures of rhythmic intensity and duration. 

After Whalen’s agile “bug, leaf, caricature” excursion into extended and fluid improvisation, he returns to the pulse of a four-three iambic cadenced couplet in the seventh line, but again without the lineation of a ballad couplet.

on pa-per held to-geth-er now / by lit-tle more than ink
& their own strength brushed / momentarily over it

Then the eighth line’s first cadence places three stresses among five syllables, by jamming three accents together last, an anapest and a spondee.   Then the second cadence or measure is straight iambic.  The eighth line’s cadence pattern reverses the ballad couplet meter to three/four accompanied by consonantal and assonantal alliteration between both lines: more, own, mo-, and over.

& their own strength brushed / momentarily over it

How exactly these accents are distributed by metrical feet is problematic even though this eighth line is not at all difficult to say.  The oral performance of this line depends on the reader sensing how the tempo/speed builds up in the previous lines “bug, leaf, caricature” and where the reader feeling a percussive rhythm of accents or pauses falls, rather than a reading following the standard accents in a dictionary.  With the following nine through eleven lines Whalen also achieves a blurred or bent-note dissonance, via assonantal overtones in ink and strength, since and whizzed, (which strikes my ear as very much a Thelonious Monk move, fluidly varying overtones via intensity and duration).  Leslie Gourse (Straight, No Chaser, 1997) describes how Monk arrived at producing such effects for his music.

“Some musicians marveled at Monk’s use of dissonance—for example, he would play two notes simultaneously to suggest the sound of the higher note in a chord, or overtone, and two more notes that did the same thing, and on and on, sometimes augmented by Monk’s use of the pedals.  Monk made seemingly simple changes in chords to achieve his signature sound, for example, a C7 chord with flat 9 would normally be played as C-B flat with the left hand, and E-G-D flat with the right hand.  But Monk played C-D flat with his left hand, with the two dissonant notes eight-and-a-half notes apart, fighting with each other, dominating the chord and creating his signature sound.”

Whalen’s progression of “ink” “ength” “ince” and “izzed” performs in a congruent fashion to Monk’s technique for dissonant notes, and their casual off-kilter domination also defines Whalen’s sound.

In lines nine to eleven Whalen’s pace picks up with returning to blank verse but then by enjambment condensing tetrameter and trimeter cadences as the poem rushes to its close.

Their world & several others since
Gone to hell in a handbasket, // they knew it

Cheered as it whizzed by

Much like a musical quote or show tune sample that Monk might introduce inside an improvisation, Whalen quotes a proverb (“Gone to hell in a handbasket”) that relies on alliteration while he adds two more speedy asides or digressions.   He again condenses a ballad four/three couplet into the tenth line via a caesura, compressing the iambic pattern even more–if you may allow that the phrase “they knew it” is three consecutive stressed syllables.  Technically this effect is a common one in blues and jazz, especially with singers.  For example, in her “Billie’s Blues” the composer/singer Billie Holliday sometimes phrases her couplet “Some people tell me baby you /built for speed.”

These compressed three sustained accents in Whalen’s tenth line prepare the reader for the same double and triple-stress effects in the twelfth line.  There, at that time with the wonderful American slang “conk” and “conked” —“to strike on the head (conk) with a weapon or bludgeon and rendered senseless” (Dictionary of American Underworld Lingo, 1950)—Whalen opens out the poem to its second rush of improvised translationese. 

                    Conked out among the busted spring rain cherry blossom winejars

This line seems hurried yet also dense, as its rhythm has ten accented syllables jammed among five unaccented syllables without any cadenced caesuras.  It has no internal rhymes and one bubbly bu-blo alliterative effect. Each of the words stands out alone, and this to my eye and ear again imitates characters in a line of Chinese poetry.   The adjective busted is placed before two more ambiguous modifying phrases spring rain and cherry blossom and then we get to their subject, winejars.  In English this strategy makes the line end even more a rushed literal translation off the top of someone’s head.

This line also induces Monk-like hesitations or suspensions of cohesive rhythm, prompting repeated glitches in the sonic meaning/measure while we mentally reset which noun or noun cluster takes what modifier. The words also shed syntax and break up into just sounds.  Gourse quotes Martin Williams on Monk’s artistic use of this phenomenon:

“Besides its highly original rhythmic subtleties, there is the question of Monk’s quite advanced harmonic ear, which has led one critic to say that ‘he has pushed jazz to the brink of atonality.’  I am not sure that the term ‘harmony’ is accurate with Monk: he seems much more interested in sound and in original and arresting combinations of sounds than in harmony per se.” (Straight, No Chaser, 1997)

Whalen suspends our syntactical harmonic comprehension in a similar way that Monk repeats, splits, and fragments chords and measures from the pop song phrases, displacing accents and suspending their resolutions for very similar sonic effects as Whalen gets with his floating syntax.

busted spring                                    between the
busted  rain                                       the devil and
busted spring rain                           between the de-
busted cherry                                   devil and
busted cherry blossom                   devil deep blue blue
busted winejars                               blue sea sea

Happy to have saved us all” fast forwards us into the style of Zen koans, where the conclusions often exist in another dimension from the body of the story.  Salvation never makes the Buddhist top ten lists of things to do, because Buddhas don’t save Buddhas.  In other words, everyone has Buddhamind, so there are no candidates for salvation.  In this case, not so much as a leap of faith is required of the reader or listener as mushin—a lightning liberation from mental obstacles (ignorance or delusion) so there is only a now.

To end on a stylistic note, that last line of Whalen reminds me of a poem by sword master Tesshu, who was especially skilled in Zen poetry and painting.  He once wrote on a bamboo fan these sage words of advice. 

       as soon as the flies retreat
the mosquitoes advance
      don’t miss the June bargain sales!

Translated by John Stevens
The Sword of No-Sword (1987)

With a witty insouciance Tesshu reminds us that our present reality is kept firmly in mind—but not your subconscious gossip mind—in your ordinary mind.  The task is to attend to each day’s minute particulars.  To receive such a quotidian command from a Zen master in expectation of something far grander may just be the shock to enlighten one and flood the student’s mind with the big picture of Buddhamind.

And I believe it is just such productions as Tesshu provided his patron that Whalen has in mind to praise, imitate, improvise on and embody with his Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinensis.  By doing so we may be happy and delighted each time we hear or read his Hymn (or Tesshu’s Spring Sales poem).

Nothing lasts save our ability to inhabit those moments, perhaps leave a poetic or calligraphic version, and thereby our perpetual joy in these arts has liberated us all.


Whalen’s acquaintances shared his appreciation for Thelonious Monk.  On January 27, 1960 Whalen’s friend, poet Lew Welch, writes to Whalen about what an inspiration and mentor Monk was for him as a writer.  In what sounds like a continuation of an ongoing discussion between them, Welch states “To get back to the writing: when I took Ann to hear Thelonious [Monk] I had a tremendous affirmation.  His hardness, his willingness to pause and wait.  His absolute disdain of transitions and developments.  The mind THERE, working.” (I Remain, 1980)

Grover Sales, Whalen and Welch’s friend, reviewed Monk’s 1959 gig at the Blackhawk in San Francisco. He wrote that Monk had “. . . taken the blues and altered them, transmogrified them and bestowed upon them brazenly new harmonic and rhythmic dimensions.”  (The Thelonious Monk Reader. 2001)

Whalen’s poem, “The Ode To Music” dedicated to composer Morton Subotnik, sets forth his passion for music’s powers of liberation and for Thelonious Monk’s total commitment.  Whalen’s friend, Allen Ginsberg, provides a quote.

What do I know or care about life and death
My concern is to arrange immediate BREAKTHROUGH
Into this heaven where we live
                        as music 


fingers that hear it as it happens
as it is being made, Thelonious Monk
“has the music going on all the time,” AG told me
“You hear it while he’s at the piano,
you see him listening to it when he’s out walking around
it’s going all the time.”

(Everyday, 1965)

Professor emeritus Keith Kumasen Abbott is the author Downstream from Trout Fishing In America, A Memoir of Richard Brautigan as well as four novels, and short story and poetry collections.  His calligraphic art has appeared in numerous art shows from Shanghai to San Antonio. The memoir of his Zen teacher, Cloud Phoenix, A Memoir of Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi” is online at

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At A Secret Location

To: The Membership & Interested Parties
From: Chinee, Grand Poobah, NBBPS
Subject: At A Secret Location

citylights1There 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 DeckMother, 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.

cover secret1This 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.

lifeofcrime (1)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)


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Jack’s Haiku Letter to Gary

To: The Membership and Interested Parties
From: Keith Kumasen Abbott, Charter Member NBBPS
Subject: Jack’s Haiku Letter to Gary

Han Shan

Han Shan; calligraphy & brush work by Keith Kumasen Abbott

In December 1957 Jack Kerouac typed this letter to Gary Snyder in Japan, on the back of a letter from Allen Ginsberg.  The letter reprises what Kerouac did that summer to go up to the Lookout in Washington.  Snyder was on board the ship Sappa Creek since August-April 1957 and he only received the letter when he returned to Japan and then left for the United States to live in Marin County in California.

Before this date, Snyder had the idea for his long poem, Mountains and Rivers Without End, but had only made notes in his journals for the poem.  He was writing a long poem, Myths and Texts, where he had collaged together many smaller poems and fragments into thematic groups.  This was finished in 1958, published in 1960. That poem combined many types of language:  anthropological, poetic, colloquial, scientific, sociological, philosophical, political, religious, Buddhist and Taoist texts, naturalist memoirs, etc.  But its overall tone and rhythms were mostly formal in Myths and Texts.  There were few loose colloquial and/or dialogue or descriptions included.   

Upon his return to Japan to study Zen he wrote partial drafts of “Night Highway Ninety-Nine” by 1960.  He wrote “it’s too intellectual still, . . . & then sort of forgetting it a long time beginning to fairly spontaneously write into it.”  But when he wrote “Bubbs Creek Haircut” in May 1960 after a return to Japan and regarded it as his breakthrough poem for the larger work, showing his desire “for the rhythms of impromptu jazz, the ‘spontaneous prose’ that Kerouac was writing.” (see Anthony Hunt, Genesis, Structure, and Meaning in Gary Snyder’s Mountains an Rivers Without End, UN Press, 2004, p. 15).  

Kerouac’s letter to Snyder scattered some brilliant haikus throughout his crammed version of hitchhiking up to Skagit Valley and its adventures.  In his prose the haikus were written as one line of verse with / separating the line breaks.   I have taken the liberty of rearranging his letter to let the haiku’s each have their own space.  Even though Snyder’s breakthrough in “Night Highway Ninety-Nine” and “Bubbs Creek Haircut” came in 1960, Kerouac’s letter had shown the way about how to write both the prose and poetry and what to include. 

DEAR GARY                                                                        December 1957

Left Mill Valley June 18, hitched to Marblemount . . had salami, sharp cheese, rye krisp  dates and peanuts for trip…. washed my feet in Russian River . .. big truckdriver talked all night, bought me meal…etc…  at Crescent City I started walking on wrong side of road on purpose to be like Chinese saint wandering into void… . got rides anyway, over the Siskyous… .slept in a mountainside full of poison oak avoiding the poison oak….Grants Pass,  and on up, sweet sleep in field outside Eugene, red nightfall

of the









in the



in the



 Got into Seattle via Bremerton, on the ferry in the rain I stood before the skipper’s bridge swiggling found-bottle of Vodka, PORT OF SEATTLE big red letters, immediately old strange totem pole Alaskan Way and 1910 steam switchpot made me love Seattle, got skid row room 15 foot ceiling and read VajChePraPar







then 99 to Bremerton and. the first sight of the vast mountains…
buy belt, socks, shirt, bandana hankies…: Then up past Everett, ride from big lumberman who stays “Skagit valley land looks like butterfat”– . . .Quick short rides up the Skagit Valley, from a fast talking logger-prospector and his mother, thru Sedro -Wooley to Hamilton, he’s going uranium hunting—from a Min n Bill couple—to a grocery store in Sauk—from a sweet young kid logger like kids in back wood of Dracut Mass with a naïve believing side look—and from a mad drunk fast swerving dark guitar to dusty flying stop at Ranger Station. .  .Long talks spinning wheel for kids in bunkhouse….”The only way to achieve a perfect vacuum,” says I to them as they argue senselessly about scientifics, “is to stop thinking”—“Because mind is matter and matter is mind”—

And then I go out, buy wine bottle in Marb, sit on bank of rushing cool green Skagit, afternoon and later by moonlight, along writing hokkus

of the
. . . .








of the












in the




jiggling sunshine






of the




Notebook say:  “Found letter from Gary Snyder on cookhouse table, telling me to hike to where Dave just went today and asked me to come too—2 Hanshan poems making me more’n  ever want to find me ‘a mountain to be kept forever’—
“….etc.etc. and fire school and Blacky Burns who asked about you, what is, kept talking about you, “Dat dere Gary wherever he goes he’ll always have fun….” And mad about the F.B.I. and whata a great man he is indeed, we sat quietly eating lunch together in front of truck while kids and old Fred Berry ate in other truck . . . .Blacky lit fire to be put out, wanted me to be takin charge but I said “Ah Blacky I’m jess an old bum, let these forestry kids take over”—I got good mark(s) in fire fightin . . .in baseball game which we lost wasn’t my fault because I got three times at bat, scored two runs, hit three doubles …..made friend with Tommy Buller during game, we’d almost had fight just before because he said I wasn’t bein paid to think and I said “I am”— Blacky is a sweet old Pa….Finally Andy the Packer come to get me and we go to store and get my groceries then to Ross Barge for a night or two, where I dig latrines on shore, then up the Lake on the bargepull boat in rain and the mule slash (sic) onshore and we start up (with Ghohlke) in sleet, rain, and snow, higher, higher, up Desolation, sweet Desolation, where I learned all and I’ll write you a huge long letter from Europe  (no, right next 2 week from my Maw’s house in south) describing it all ….

.have no time now, just adding p.s. to Allen’s letter, I haven’t written to you for the odd Mexico reasons of no post offices and stamp facilities for overseas etc. and couldn’t get up in time …….but I think of you all the time….more than you know—— On Desolation, well I’ll tell you later, it’s a long beautiful tale quietude….Meanwhile I have been writing furious, for this  year for instance I have three new novels and new perms (poems??) and now all of a sudden 2 contracts with publishers in NY here this very day it’s taking place…..have great new way of transliterating Diamond Sutra that will at last spread the diamond sutra in the west and maybe even in the east, all Sanskrit terms out of it, but translated into simple English, I cry when I read it sometimes and I read it every day……that too I’ll send you later….meanwhile be you the Gary Snyder of my dreams…be you sad deep Gary, sad funny crazy Gary, and be bejesus god we’ll go climb mountains again soon              Jack

Jack’s notebook dialogue entries serve to point out that samples job talk and travel preparations sets up a narrative later used as plot points for leaving or arriving at Desolation.  Anthony Hunt cites that a Snyder shirt pocket journal dated 4:October: 57 had “Snyder’s first inklings of what would become “Night Highway 99” [Hunt: p. 71] the first substantial section of Mountain And Rivers.

Professor emeritus Keith Kumasen Abbott, poet and calligrapher, is the author Downstream from Trout Fishing In America, A Memoir of Richard Brautigan as well as four novels, and short story and poetry collections.    His calligraphic art has appeared in numerous art shows from Shanghai to San Antonio, and in a recent issue of Mark Young’s Otolith. The memoir of his Zen teacher, Cloud Phoenix, A Memoir of Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi” is online at

New to the Society’s Shelves

David Ball, New Lulu (Sand Project Press, Northamption, MA, 2011)
Dennis Maloney, Listening To Tao Yuan Ming (Glass Lyre Press, Glen view, IL, 2016)
Mike Tuggle, The Motioning In (Petaluma River Press, Bodega, CA, 2016)


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