Crystal Set #17: Country Rush by Maureen Owen (Adventures in Poetry, 1973)

Country Rush by Maureen Owen (Adventures in Poetry, 1973). Mimeo side-stapled, 28 pages, with cover and drawings by Yvonne Jacquette.

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Who sent me this copy of Country Rush? Cassandra? Greg? It's gorgeous, with a perfect single-splash coffee stain on the cover. And this copy originally belonged to Frances Waldman, Anne's mother, with her name written in pencil at the top of the first page. Country Rush is Owen's first book, published by Larry Fagin's Adventures in Poetry in the midst of Owen's incredible editing of Telephone magazine and books. As far as I know, there's been no critical attention to Owen's Telephone magazine, which alongside Notley's Chicago and Waldman's editing of The World make up a powerful collection of women-edited mimeo mags from the late 60s through the 70s. [Correction: See Stephanie Anderson's interview with Maureen Owen in Chicago Review Vol. 59, No. 1-2 Fall 2015, a significant, wonderful conversation about women small-press publishers.] In a 1977 radio interview on the program "Expressions" with Doug Lang, "a review of small press books, mostly poetry," for WPFW, a Washington, DC-based station, Owen describes the editing of the magazine and press, publishing the work of younger and more unknown poets (like Susan Howe!), and using the mailing list at the Poetry Project to send out copies. Other than being an incredibly rare conversation with a women solely about small press publishing made during that era, the interview is a wonderful portrait by Owen of what it meant to run a small press in the 70s, from using mimeograph, Xerox, or off-set publishing techniques, how to handle distribution, and the economies of poetry publishing. It's absolutely worth listening to in full (just over 14 minutes long), especially for the complexity of these sorts of exchanges about gender and publishing:

Lang: There's one other thing I wanted to ask you about the selection process for Telephone, which is that Telephone Books seems more predisposed to publish more women than men.
Owen: That just sort of happened, I think, because it seemed like there were more young, not even young, but unpublished women whose manuscripts I'd come across. It seemed like there were more opportunities for men to get published at the time that I was starting. I don't feel tremendously feminist in mine--there's so many men whose work I'm so enthusiastic about. I think it's just simply because I get more manuscripts from women because they don't have the other outlets. It's just not as available.
Lang: That's certainly the only work in book form I've seen of Rebecca Wright, Rebecca Brown, Susan Howe.
Owen: Yeah, all terrific writers. I mean I can't understand sometimes why they're being neglected.
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Lang: It does seem amazing to me that someone like Susan Howe, who is one of the most remarkable writers in America, I think...
Owen: Yeah, really.
Lang: ...is only available to a very select audience who knows small press publishing and has come it through that.
Owen: I know. I think anyone who wants to read terrific poetry that's going down now should make a terrific effort to find out what small presses are available, what books, because there's something terrifically beautiful things being published by tiny presses in really limited editions.
Lang: They'd do well by buying all the Telephone Books to begin with.
Owen: That would be a start!

In a 2016 interview with Pat Nolan, Owen reiterates what it meant to be editing and creating Telephone among the community of artists at the Poetry Project: 

I was meeting some terrific unpublished poets, so many of them women, and though 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.
Tom 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.
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About Country Rush Owen says: "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!"

There is a cosmic attentiveness in these poems, swaying between a Buddhist pleasure and knowledge of the natural world, of ecological systems, that tracks "Nature's / out & out extravagance" ("Land O Lakes"), and a kind of playful social ruckus and personality, like in these lines from an untitled poem: "Perhaps I'll develop the limping stride / of Byron / people stepping back as I jerk through." Owen's proximity to the Beats during her time in San Francisco and years in Japan during the 60s are clear influences, including a poem dedicated to Gary Snyder. Though as she traces in her interview with Nolan, she was already plugged in to a Tulsa-cum-New York School aesthetic via her early friendship with David Bearden, the poet playfully memorialized in Berrigan's The Sonnets, "I wonder if David Bearden still dislikes me." I pick up that lineage in lines like "The true measure of reality      an attitude" from "Farming Country" and "under these stars full of beer & power" from "Gravel Rush." There's a lush flair in Owen's attention, like she's having to say things quickly because of the pressing demands of the day, limited time, and this tension pushes the poems' wit and energy. I love these last lines from the poem "Goodyear," which sort of erupt from a meditation on dream and love: "Incidents while we stood under the drupaceous branches / fondling mammoth peaches with our tongues." The poem's willingness to acknowledge and hold how dreams and self (interchangeable?) have the ability to be what "washed in to blunder the details of life" is refreshing. In all of the rushes of the book, there's also Owen's "Body Rush," an ecstatic, funny, and horny catalog of excitements and care. Like Notley's first book, 165 Meeting House Lane, published two years before Country Rush, the female body is irreducibility present--never a metaphor, never owned--in a position of pleasure and refusal. The play on "country"--the rural and the sexual--is painted across the book, and the "rush" is an ongoing excitement, both music and a way of being in the world against the stillness of narrative.

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You can also see a lineage from Owen's work to Bernadette Mayer to Lisa Jarnot, with her lyric attention to the natural and domestic that doesn't exclude the fantastic or the incantatory, and for her wonderful devotion to lists and the nouns that populate them, like in the poem below "for Lauren." Mayer's Midwinter Day, written in 1978, is full of such catalogs that reframe what it means to describe a day. Jarnot's books also revel in associational and sonic joys of including words like "spice bush" and "false solomon seal" in a poem. 

Owen's poetry book Amelia Earhart (Vortex Editions, 1984) won an American Book Award in 1985. Audio recordings from 1970s through 2012--the image of Owen to the right is from a 1978 "Public Access Poetry" video--are available on Owen's PennSound page.

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Crystal Set #16: Locked From the Outside by Susie Timmons (Yellow Press, 1990)

Locked From the Outside by Susie Timmons (Yellow Press, 1990). Softcover, 57 pages, with cover by Alex Katz and introduction by Alice Notley.

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The poems in Locked From the Outside are like catalogs of looking, sculptural vulnerable intellect, being sharp and invisible in a way, considering what it means to use words to see when one is being prohibited from vision--by war, by gender, by sex, by general shittiness--but still seeing something else entirely. And while the world of things is idiotic and hilarious ("a troupe of seventeen year old / Iron Maiden freaks puking inside their tent"), these poems' attention to the vibrating presence of the self-in-the-world, of thinking working and working against--charged by Timmons's wit and care--deliver an imaginative refusal. When her poems come up against the second person pronoun there's always some sort of gentle fire spreading around those lines, like in "Bamboo Union," such an awesomely weird title that juts up against the malaise of its first line, "One day is the same as another to me." But the poem continues, the "you" dropping in mid-poem to be aimed at: "I know you hate me, but too bad, if you hate me // Amazing audience tells you whats banned / my pussy, that's what, ostrich feathers." I mean, these lines are amazing. They remind me of Alice Notley's short poem "Fuck You, Man: Or Rose Take Me Back": "I'm sorry I've / pissed you off for the / last fifteen years, / but I haven't." Is Susie Timmons a Scorpio, too? I hope she is. More of that color of refusal: "What is an insult, or what is 'cute'" ("Locked From the Outside"); "I guess I'm supposed to be envious / out of control and full of regret" and "I tell you what to read" ("Forty Yous"). I like that. Or is she a Capricorn, or even a Leo? From "A Ghostly Shark": "all I ever wanted the only thing I ever wanted / the one thing I ever wanted out of life / was to be King of the People." Which then becomes "all I ever wanted the only thing I ever wanted / the one thing I wanted out of life / was to feel you up. / and burn you up, baby, if I may be so bold // detergent." Amazing. And Timmons always wins out, like the Katz painting on the cover, by answering with a hard look. From "Locked From the Outside": "here is where you cause something to happen   I mean you have a body / liable to the subjunctive / to do / MAGIC.    namely / as opposed / urgently desiring transcendence." I like reading this as "opposed [to] urgently desiring transcendence," but she gets it both ways. The hard look is "to do / MAGIC," to carry that in the imagining body toward what's possible. "I'm going to stand at the bus stop now / I'm going to launch all my worries / Into the pale blue atmosphere / Today, where sexy clouds will treat them to oblivion" ("Boulevard of Ghosts"). But Timmons's wish is also to stay deeply in the world to "experience description / examine the urge to describe / feelings" even if, or because, "description is impossible" ("Baby With a Gun"). Which leads to the last line "How can I make this place?" It's fun to spend time in Timmons's making, like in the poem "Little Life, Belgrade," who associative attention is an "I dream this, I dream that" rewrite of New York School dailiness: "Four new records, 20 voices / the lush particulars of a moose herd on 14th St. / antiquarian or a snap to / black and white photo of traffic, noonday / Belgrade, November 19, 1963. / Frank O'Hara, Adventures in Poetry / in the half light." 

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Timmons's three books were recently collected in Superior Packet, published by Wave in 2015. Until now it hasn't been easy to get ahold of Timmon's earlier works, Hog Wild (Frontward Books, 1979) and Locked From the Outside. Cassandra Gillig sent me this copy a few years ago. In 2007, CA Conrad wrote an enthusiastic little essay for the Poetry Project Newsletter on trying to track down Locked From the Outside on the recommendation of Eileen Myles. "We need this book back in print!" It's back now. Locked From the Outside was the winner of the inaugural (and only?) Ted Berrigan Award from the Yellow Press, selected by Notley, Robert Creeley, Anselm Hollo, and Ron Padgett. Notley's introduction is a gem. I've retyped the first paragraph on the rationale for the Ted Berrigan Award:

One of the more pronounced themes of Ted Berrigan's poetry career was his encouragement of younger poets: he spoke & practiced an ethic of encouragement. Partly he was obsessed by the fact that he had managed to become a poet in spite of obstacles of class background & everyone's & his general obtuseness about poetry. One thing he used to say was to the effect, 'All I've ever wanted is to be a poet, & I've gotten my wish... And I didn't say "great poet"--I don't want that--I said "poet."' The implication was that to want to be a "great poet" was a slightly inferior aspiration; to be a poet was magical & complete. (Whether or not he was a great poet is another topic.) But, in his view, poetry was also a profession, like others, a very honorable one, & not exclusive or special. Anyone who really wanted to be a poet should of course be welcome into the guild, whatever that person's aesthetic persuasions. In his years of teaching--both in universities & institutions & on his own in our apartment or on the streetcorner (he continuously taught)--he actively searched for new poets, read anyone's manuscript, talked to anyone who might be willing to serve poetry out of the love for it. He catalyzed many people into the profession. And though he seemed to proselytize for the New York School--because he had found his kind of wit & inspiration there--he liked all kinds of poetry & understood very well different poets' different drives & needs. So the idea of a Ted Berrigan Award to a young poet, with book publication as the prize, is not only fitting, it's obvious. I'm pleased to announce the existence of the annual Ted Berrigan Award, given by the Yellow Press, & that the winner of the first annual Ted Berrigan Award is Susan Timmons.

About Simmons, Notley writes:

Lately it's been rare for me to begin reading a book of poems & want to keep reading it. Since I did want to keep reading Susan Timmons' LOCKED FROM THE OUTSIDE, I began to wonder again about what keeps one reading. It's not "ability" or "talent," "mastery of form" that keeps one reading: no one's that interested in another person's merits. One thing that makes the reader read is something fluid & life-like conveyed, a voice, a personality, a drive, a style of wit. I'm interested in the fact that Susan Timmons' poetry voice has wit, has personality, never tells us what's really going on (is not confessional or even explicit, though there's a lot of apartment & city decor) & yet manages to effect in the reader a sense that the experience of a given poem is complete. As I turn from page to page of the book, I just want to know what's going to say next: & this mysteriously has to do with the poetry's content--as if its content is its engagement with myself the reader, in the process of its speaking to me, simply speaking. As the title of the book might imply, the reader has the key to unlock the poem, by becoming the person spoken to. These are lonely poems, along-in-a-room poems, but they are very amusing & rather unsettling.
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Crystal Set #15: POEMS: The Location of Things, Archaics, The Open Skies by Barbara Guest (Doubleday, 1962)

Poems: The Location of Things, Archaics, The Open Skies by Barbara Guest (Doubleday, 1962). 95 pages, hardcover with cover drawing by Robert Dash.

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In January 2017, Brandon Shimoda sent me a message on Twitter that he had a copy of this book by Barbara Guest, he said, "which is ALLEGEDLY signed by Ted Berrigan, though I never believed it...It does say Ted; the book's in rough shape...Anyway, not knowing you, I thought of you...Do you want it?" He had bought it in Fayetteville and offered to send it to me for free. I said I'd love to have it. "I mean, there's no way (is there?) that TB signed a book BY Barbara Guest, but so the store claimed; it's where Matt Henriksen used to work. I bought it for something like $5, which only confirms the lie, but I guess the lie is also part of the legend, however much of the gutter, idle fantasy." I replied "It's totally possible that it is Ted's signature, but I wouldn't know anything without seeing it. He did sometimes sign his name in copies of others' books and signs his name in pages of his journals, etc, as a kind of performative framing. I don't know how it'd get to Fayetteville. But objects are wild, and you're right, hold the lie." This remains one of the best things that Twitter has ever allowed to happen.

It turns out that this copy of Guest's Poems is actually signed by Berrigan, which for books that came through Ted's possession isn't an uncommon occurrence. This book Berrigan gave as a gift, as his signature appears on the first blank page in pencil with a brief note, "Happy Birthday etc. Love, Ted." A bookmark for Dickson Street Bookshop where Shimoda bought the book is laid in with the note "Signed by Ted Berrigan." The handwriting, especially the large loop on the 'd' in "Ted," looks like other examples of Berrigan's handwriting from the early 1960s not long after he moved to New York City, so he likely bought (or stole) the book when it was new in 1962, soon before offering it as a gift to a friend. But why would such a rare New York School association copy of Guest's first book on a major press (only preceded by the Tibor de Nagy edition of The Location of Things) only cost $5? The book's personal history gets more complex on the inside of the back cover where in pencil the bookseller has written: "Note dated poem by Ted Berrigan and signed at front" with an arrow point to the left, where the book's final page would be. However, this note has been crossed out, underneath is written "STOLEN," and the book's final page, where the handwritten poem appeared, has been completely torn out. You can see the edge of the torn out page against the binding. It's terrible to be missing the handwritten, original Berrigan poem--likely a pre-The Sonnets work--and also to be missing the context given by the date. Ted regularly wrote in copies of books and magazines, sometimes adding one-off, original poems as he did here, but it's unclear who he gave this copy of Guest's book to. One would like to think Berrigan gave the book to Gerard Malanga on his birthday, who then reviewed this copy in the Spring 1965 issue of Kulchur magazine whose reviews section was then being edited by Berrigan. "In Barbara Guest," Malanga writes, "we have a poet of a sensitivity far removed from direct influences, a poet who has added fresh, even humorous, associations to her subject matter by a hallucinatory power of juxtaposition." (See the full review below.) 

Regardless of who Berrigan actually presented the book to, it's exciting to wonder if the scant marginalia throughout the copy, mostly vertical lines along particular stanzas or X's by the titles of some poems, all in pencil like the dedication and signature, could be Berrigan's own. The last stanza in Guest's poem "Les Réalités" is one of the marked stanzas, and I can see how its sonic oddnesses and off-kilter play with symbolism would have appealed to Berrigan's sensibilities. Then first experimenting with amphetamines in the early 1960s, he might have also have found some humor in the lines "as this pharmacy / turns our desire into medicines."

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Guest's "Sunday Evening" is one of the few poems with an "X" marked by the title. Playing off Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning," the poem's colloquial, mysterious direct addresses, juxtapositions, formal repetitions, slightly bent images, and even the sonic texture of its vocabulary are all qualities Berrigan would have been attracted to. It's a little uncanny to read this poem with Berrigan in mind, as it starts to feel like a palimpsest for the moves and sounds in The Sonnets. Guest's lines "In the red, in the air, in what is falling through us / We quote several things" could act as an aesthetic description of Berrigan's collage of lineages in his poems. I'm not sure anyone has even attempted to read Berrigan and Guest in proximity, and I'm glad Shimoda sending me this book could lead to this sort of idiosyncratic reading. Books like this one, which are evidence of how oddly and magically books move through the world as these records of people, devotions, moments, thinking, care, lostness, and mystery, are exactly why I started writing the "Crystal Set" series in the first place. Objects are wild and attending to their wildness, acknowledging how their material residues refract and alter exchangeable narratives, can help us to reorient how we imagine the work of scholarship.

Read Erica Kaufman's excellent review of The Location of Things in Jacket2:

This dichotomy of inside/outside, voyeur/actor resonates throughout the book and continues to remind the reader that women do not have the luxury of occupying space in the same way men (her male contemporaries) do/did. In these early poems, we see the surfacing of Guest’s commitment to poetry that works as painting or architecture — poetry that demands the reader look at the thing in front of him/her and then let it teach them to occupy space, with one eye on object and the other on the gendered body that views it. 

And listen to the May 1984 recording on PennSound that include's Guest reading "Sunday Evening.

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 Gerard Malanga's review of  Poems  by Barbara Guest in  Kulchur  17 (Spring 1965)

Gerard Malanga's review of Poems by Barbara Guest in Kulchur 17 (Spring 1965)

Crystal Set #14: Circus Nerves by Kenward Elmslie (Black Sparrow Press, 1971)

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Circus Nerves by Kenward Elmslie (Black Sparrow Press, 1971). Perfect bound with cover image by Joe Brainard. This one no. 66 of 200 hardcover copies signed by Elmslie. 

I bought this copy of Circus Nerves last summer at The Captain's Bookshelf in Asheville, North Carolina--one of my favorite bookstores--along with the 1968 Something Else Press edition of Geography and Plays by Gertrude Stein and the 1948 first American edition of The Moment and Other Essays by Virginia Woolf. I've always loved this Brainard cover image--the subtle sexiness of the offset torso, the primary color bonanza of tattoo parlor staple images arranged into an almost occult figuration. The exaggerated, cartoonish curves of the female nude contrast with the realistic but anonymous nude (we assume) male body it's printed onto. These nonverbal symbols of mid-century Americana and heterosexual masculinity are tweaked into a celebratory, queer portrait of the male body as canvas and subject, as art itself. I think my grandfather, a World War II veteran, might have actually had the exact same bald eagle tattoo on his arm. Brainard made a series of works featuring tattoos throughout the early 1970s--one was featured on the cover of Artforum in 2001--and tattoos of anchors and butterflies would appear throughout his work. Tattoos make sense as Pop art images--endlessly repeated and recycled bodily ads of the cultural imagination--and Brainard handles them with his quintessential humor and vulnerability. Even the gorgeously typeset title page anticipates Elmslie's cross-genre American imagination. It's all energy, performance, and attraction--a good visual primer for Elmslie's buoyant, charming, and powerfully weird lyrical gymnastics in Circus Nerves.

I say "weird" with the greatest adoration. Reading the first poem in Circus Nerves, "Ancestor Worship," in which "[t]he young master / coughed himself inside out one day, and bravo! // rematerialized as a red cactus" and "grandfather sat naked and cooled, / singing of traffic organized like a factory, rashly," you'd be forgiven for not noticing that the poem is, in one way of describing it, about giant insects eating the world. Whether or not you remember when the monstrous "[a]nts chomped at / the jigsaw puzzles, ground with their hideous mandibles // treey landscapes and Venices at sunset," a mishmashed environment of American surrealism cum sci-fi European classicism, there's something to enjoy and wistfully read through at every turn. The poems' scenes and sources, like the work of Elmslie's close New York School friends, are constantly shifting and unexpectedly inclusive. One of my favorite sets of lines in the book are from the end of "Ashtray Offer" where while working Elmslie and Brainard are listening to the 1970 song "Contact High" by Ike & Tina Turner: "'Contact High' is a lovable old new tune / collages everywhere and no oasis // Joe hunts for bones / and me: black stones." Or the incredible "Nov 25" with its inventory of New York School names amidst the media-rich atrocities of the Vietnam War, which ends: "we'll wrap our bombed friends in palm fronds // and become a singing people (did you enjoy your turkey) / hey we are a singing people (the wing part tasted metallic)."  Like Kenneth Koch's "The Circus" from his 1962 book Thank You and Other Poems, to whom Circus Nerves is dedicated, Elmslie stages these grand processions of lines--a parade of vibrant, glitter-spazzing nouns and ricocheting narratives--that, mixed with a little cute abjection shaped into the comedy of sonic slippage, fete and disorient a reader into a sublime, rogue dreaminess. Just working to write these descriptions of Elmslie's poem is a joy. His work amplifies all the bent wonder that serious thinking requires.

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Always, though, there's an elegiac lostness tied into the circuits of daily affect. Take his "Entry (for Mary Clow)," in which despite all the fun of Anne Waldman's birthday the news of a friend's passing spurs the observation that "Anne'll never again see 24." Aware of his "Taurus Depression," he leaves the celebration to lock himself in his room where "rock throbs blast through floor." Alone, he inventories the events of the day in uncharacteristically spare fashion, almost a darker version of Berrigan's "10 Things I Do Everyday": "morning news / answer phone / friend dead // feed face / head for heat / sweat and fret // see movie / grieve in the dark / in middle: leave." These are the nerves in Elmslie's circus, the living connections but also the raw, untethered ends. The last poem in Circus Nerves, "First Frost," which addresses the death of Frank O'Hara, is a moving example of the tender brittleness layered in Elmslie's imaginative vision. Beginning in what could be an idyllic landscape of beauty and comfort, the scene triggers Elmslie's memory of a few years before in 1966 when "that summer stopped / fragments and remnants" and he "returned to NYC / scared I'd wake up in DOA City / holocaust: no Frank O'Hara // audible chasm: no Frank O'Hara." Colored by the rhetoric of the ongoing Vietnam War, Elmslie imagines New York City transforming into "Dead On Arrival" City, a national, political, and aesthetic "holocaust" in which a whole world, the world with his dear friend O'Hara in it, is annihilated. The "fragments and remnants" of the rest of the poem, also the "fragments and remnants" of O'Hara left with the living, like "snatches of his voice in certain intonations," are housed in these clean-looking staggered tercets that hold up the wobbly oscillation between pieces. Like the simultaneously "frozen" and "spewing" milkweed, these pieces hold together as they fall and separate, gutted by the absence that animates their movement, that "audible chasm: no Frank O'Hara." I can't get over the last stanza with its intricate loveliness and the grief that looks to earlier lines for an almost pleading sequence of isolated repetitions. Referring to John Giorno's Dial-a-Poem service that started in 1968, Elmslie is perhaps referring to O'Hara's contributions to the project, these recordings of "Ode to Joy" and "To Hell With It," the former of which repeats the iconic line "No more dying" and the of latter which is prefaced by O'Hara's explanation that "The occasion of the poem is not that two friends of mine died but obviously it was in the back of my mind if not the front when I wrote it, and I think that probably after the initial shock death makes me angrier rather than sadder as an event." Though the first Dial-a-Poem LP wouldn't be released until a year after Circus Nerves was published, Elmslie is already listening to "Frank sing." 

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Some of the poems in Circus Nerves were first published in Power Plant Poems, one of the early run of books from Ted Berrigan's "C" Press. Published in 1967, Power Plant Poems includes this awesome portrait of Elmslie in sunglasses by Brainard. Ted actually appears in Circus Nerves in the poem "Awake on March 27th," a description of waking up before his guests one morning at his home in Calais, Vermont. Before describing Brainard, his longtime partner, sick with the flu, being as hot as "a jalopy in the tropics," the poem begins: "my thoughts turn up / always the first one up around here / Ted's god-fearing farmer red Hi Folks beard / with its growth of unabashed pseudo-pubic hair / mebbe's scratching kinkily against the clean maiden / sheets as pellets of old speed sift through his system / asleep on top floor." While not clearly the most flattering portraiture, it's absolutely Ted, and I love the description of his "god-fearing farmer red Hi Folks beard." He and Ted were close friends. In the Autumn 1965 issue of Kulchur, Berrigan had reviewed Elmslie's 1961 pamphlet Pavilions, published by Tibor de Nagy. A great example of the wit and intelligence of Berrigan's prose in his early reviews, I've always adored the anecdote (apocryphal?) from Tom Veitch about the Elmslie altar. Here is the complete review transcribed:

Kenward Elmslie is the least well-known of that group of poets mis- but aplty-named (by John Myers & Don Allen) "The New York School," whose roll (I think) would include John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Frank O'Hara, Barbara Guest, Bill Berkson, and not Edward Field. (And Kenward Elmslie.) At the moment I'm not at librerty to reveal its location.
(Also, as a matter of fact, James Schuyler is making a strong bid for Kenward's title. However, with regards to both these writers, an underground group of young Turks seems determined to "get the manuscripts" from them and "plagiarize their works!")
I know that reading Kenward Elmslie's poems has had a strong effect on my own writing. For one thing, he has made me very aware of individual words, their sweet eccentricity. For another, and most important to me, the way his poems ARE (i.e. 'take place') Right Now is tremendously exciting. He is able to include a kind of daylight nostalgia in his poems without sacrificing any of the present to the past, a very sexy and useful trick in making right now be Right Now. He is a very personal poet though he tempts us often to forget it. Like Ashbery and Koch and O'Hara (each in his different manner) Elmslie is an American poet with an absolutely non-UnAmerian style (voice). Offhand I would guess that he owes less to Apollinaire than his schoolmates, and perhaps more to hardcore Surrealism. (That's a pretty unbelievable sentence, wonder who I've been reading?) As a matter of fact, Kenward Elmslie's poetry is almost nothing like Surrealism. I remember when I first met Tom Veitch, about four years ago; one day he noticed my copy of Pavilions and he told me that some friends of his at Columbia had built an altar to Kenward Elmslie in their room to pray to during exams. It wasn't so much his poems, although they liked them a lot, it was his name: Kenward Elmslie. They thought that that was really a great name. Prayed to it every day.
[Berrigan reproduces in full Elmslie's poem "The Dustbowl" as published in Art & Literature #1]
 The Elmslie poem Ted references at the end of his review.

The Elmslie poem Ted references at the end of his review.

Lately Kenward Elmslie's poems have been appearing in C, in Aram Saroyan's Lines magazine, in Mother magazine and Arts & Literature; and for those interested, he has had work in Gerrit Lansing's Set, in Locus Solus #'s 2, 3, and 5, in The Hasty Papers and in A New Folder, just to mention a few. He also did the libretto for the Opera Lizzie Borden which premiered in March at the New York City Center. And he and Joe Brainard have collaborated on a beautiful Baby Book (available at 8th Street Bkshop) which I presume will be reviewed in this magazine sometime. Of the poems in magazines, the one that shouldn't be missed is Elmslie's long, beautiful and very major (what the mans) poem, "The Champ," in C #10. Now to end let me quote the poem containing the great line I've read in anything, anywhere. 

If you're not familiar with Elmslie's work, an issue at least since Berrigan wrote his review in 1965, I recommend reading through his Routine Disruptions: Selected Poems & Lyrics published in 1998 by Coffee House and likely easy to find. In a review of Routine Disruptions, Alice Notley begins with this incredible description: 

Contemplating writing this review of Routine Disruptions: Selected Poems & Lyrics by Kenward Elmslie -- an excellent collection -- I've been unable to dislodge a picture from my mind. It is of Elmslie during a reading several years ago, with a large "hat" on, made by an artist, that used as its primary image a large brassiere. A man reading poetry with a brassiere on his head! This is an icon, for me, of Elmslie's work, its wild funniness, theatricality, brazenness, its love of art and objects. Cleanly designed strange or beautiful objects, as in poems, as poems, words as objects, but . . . this is not a doctrine, and the face below the bra-hat, Kenward Elmslie's pleased bemused own, never disappears.

Says Michael Silverblatt in the introduction to the recent print by Song Cave of Elmslie's The Orchid Stories:

Kenward Elmslie’s perverse, scabrous, gorgeous poetry and prose have astonished his fans for over fifty years—decades during which he remained the pride of small presses, the happy secret of cognoscenti—but it is safe to say that the vast audience his work deserves doesn’t know what it’s missing. He’s the most extravagant, and extravagantly overlooked, poet in America.

Says John Yau in his review of The Orchid Stories, "The Great Kenward," in the perfectly frank prose that makes Yau's writing the best:

It’s great that Song Cave has brought The Orchid Stories back into print. Elmslie is the perfect writer to begin reading in an age that worships profligacy and the collecting of luxury items and art trophies. As in the sentence about coffee that I just cited, he can morph from a realist opening shot (“One finishes one’s coffee) to a cartoon image at the end (“like an old-fashioned baby spoon”) while passing through a moment of extreme, self-destructive violence (“one hacks it with one’s spoon…). Next to Elmslie’s sentence, Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog” looks like what it is, expensive contrivance.

But really, one should start by watching this selection from the documentary Poetry in Motion, produced by Ron Mann in 1981. Of course, Elmslie is a celebrated lyricist and writer for musicals, including The Grass Harp, a musical adaptation of Truman Capote's novel that was first staged in 1971, the same year Circus Nerves and another poetry book, Motor Disturbance, were published. Watching this video and listening to this recording of two additional songs from an undated performance at The Poetry Project, I'm imagining "Prairie Home Companion" joyfully erased from our world and in its place instead we have Kenward Elmslie hosting a public radio variety show called "The Tunnel of Fuzz" or "Unshaven Mystery Bomb" or "The Violin Rallies." I love Elmslie's poems and hope you do, too.

"The sky is a triumph": Ted Berrigan on the art of George Schneeman

 Berrigan wearing a shirt featuring a George Schneeman print

Berrigan wearing a shirt featuring a George Schneeman print

A couple of years ago I was writing an essay on Ted Berrigan's little-known art writing for ARTnews, a lively, intense yet brief span of work from 1965 to 1966 in which Berrigan reviewed over 100 gallery exhibitions and produced a handful of feature articles. That essay, "The Pollock Streets: Ted Berrgan's Art Writing," was published in Fanzine as Part 1 and Part 2. Berrigan's devotion to art writing was a way to continue his own self-education in art and a way to stand alongside while insisting on a difference between himself and first generation poet-art critics like Ashbery, O'Hara, and Schuyler whose art criticism, unlike Berrigan's, is quite well known. I first found out about Ted's work for ARTnews reading his 1972 interview with Barry Alpert in Talking in Tranquility, and was a little stunned to find the information so out in the open, in a book published over 25 years ago. Finding Ted's contributions to the magazine was another layer of unexpected pleasure -- I just went to my university library where every issue of ARTnews had been bound and conspicuously shelved away. Sure enough, Berrigan's contributions were brimming in the mid-60s. While Ted didn't contribute to ARTnews after December 1966, he did publish one last piece of art writing in Art in America in March 1980 on his long-time friend George Schneeman. As Notley describes in "A Note on Ted and George" from A Painter Among Poets: The Collaborative Art of George Schneeman, Berrigan and Schneeman's friendship was full of a thick reciprocity organized around shared aesthetic spaces, a way to live. Notley writes:

"Ted was always collaborating with George, even when they weren't officially collaborating. And I think George was influenced in a general way by Ted's individualistic, ugly line (as evidenced in his signature) and by his complete assurance that the ugly was artistic and that he, Ted, was an artist too. (I can hear George telling me Ted's signature wasn't ugly, and I guess it wasn't.) When George says he is "unhandling" paint, in my interview with him in 1977 [originally published in the Chicago-based magazine Brilliant Corners and included in Notley's book Waltzing Matilda], I think he is voicing an esthetic partly developed with Ted. Obviously Ted and George shared a sense of humor, but they also shared a sense of sentiment, and something like an ethical tension. To what extent does one honor society's code (thus producing sentiment), and to do what extent does one go against these codes in order to be an artist?"

Below is the complete article, "George Schneeman at Holly Solomon," which is Berrigan's last published piece of art criticism. It's fitting that it's on Schneeman, whose paintings of Ted and their collaborations together are so wonderfully descriptive of the lives they shared. One will notice that Ted uses the same phrase, "unhandling," to describe Schneeman's use of paint, evidence of his ongoing attention to the conversation they had all been building together. And it would be wrong not to point out that the last line in this review, which describes a fresco featuring Ted, "the colors are serious – something portentous is at stake," directly echos these lines from Sonnet I in The Sonnets: "Still they mean something. For the dance / And the architecture. / Weave among incidents / May be portentous to him." Up in the air, a little sonorous wonder.

from Art in America Vol. 68, No. 3 (March 1980), pg 118

GEORGE SCHNEEMAN AT HOLLY SOLOMON

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With his third show of frescoes in three years, Schneeman’s place among the most accomplished painters now coming to the fore makes itself obvious. The 23 paintings included were mostly small, though by no means diminutive, and their variety, arrived at through formal means (size, shape, dispersal of subject matter) made walking into the gallery a great pleasure.

Schneeman lived with his family in Italy, near Siena, from 1959 to 1966, and did some fresco painting then. During succeeding years in New York he painted mostly figures, on fairly large canvases in acrylic – friends and family both clothed and nude. These remain marvelous pictures, done in his characteristic manner of “un-handling” the paint (no brushstroke virtuosity), with drawing and painting often taken to mean the same thing. Highly admired by a few, this early work nevertheless brought the artist little of the notice or success that should have been his.

Schneeman’s first show of frescoes, three years ago, consisted of some 75 small examples, each 7 by 9 includes, mounted on 2 1/2-inch-thick cinderblocks. They were paintings of flannel lumberjack shirts in three-color plaids, flattened on wire hangers and depicted dead center on an eggshell white background. The show was a success, all the paintings were sold, and reviews were admiring. His show last year consisted of over 60 more frescoes, similar in size but of heads this time, and while loved his admirers, it was only a modest success. (Who wants a monumental object, that cinderblock, with the face of someone you don’t even know on it?)

This most recent show was a knockout from any point of view. There were four of the familiar shirts, on silver hangers this time and done in relief. They are perfect. The four window paintings, a shade larger than the shirts (9 by 8 inches), are almost equally accomplished, their kitchen-window curtains – also done in relief – opening out onto remembered Tuscan landscapes that the dazzling white window mullions divide into quadrants.

Also included were four landscapes, all complete winners. Three are rectangular, one recapitulating the famous Veneziano John the Baptist landscape, minus the saint. The fourth, my candidate for most charming picture in the show, is round, mounted on a rectangular white base, and slightly recessed so as to emphasize its distance from the viewer.

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Finally there are the figure pieces, which are not portraits per se, but people sitting for paintings. Two such single-figure works are based on Piero di Cosimo’s Profile of a Young Woman. The first, Anita is of a ripe beauty; the painting is round and has been given a white mounting resembling a Duchamp rotorelief. It is all innocence and light, truly delectable. The second, Alice, is rectangular and dark, with storm clouds curling behind the woman’s dark, chopped hair. Her knowing but unspeaking face is paired with a sensual, womanly body that is all about earth and outdoors. A third painting, Britta, of an individual against landscape is one of the show’s real standouts. In front of a rough Tuscan landscape, in profile, is an implacably made-up European (German) head, with red hair tight across the forehead, and red lips.

The highlight of the show was a painting of the kind referred to in the quattrocento talk as a “Sacra Conversazione.” Three Figures/Landscape gives us three men in the foreground, the figure on the left turned into the picture, the figure on the right (who, I ought to point out, is myself) turned slightly outward. Behind them a third figure wearing a straw hat looks straight at you, smiling in a blissful awareness of stage center. The artist has used landscape to pull the picture together, and also to disguise the seams (Frescoes dry so quickly – within three hours or less – that only one figure can be painted a day. Next day, or session, more plaster is applied, and another figure may be added, etc.) Two of the figures have Hawaiian shirts on. The sky is a triumph, the figures are poised in attitudes befitting their countenances, the colors are serious – something portentous is at stake.                  

                                                            -- Ted Berrigan

Vintage New York School Video

An irreplaceable part of what I understand as studying is easing into a nonlinear, felt relationship with what's at hand (and what's not), arriving at and reading the exchangeable portions of authorship and writing while also sifting into the ephemera and noise that show how that writing is a life. If not in the archive, this usually means errant searches online for recordings and photographs, a more organized look via PennSound or UbuWeb, and deep searches on rare book sites like ABAA and Abebooks. Rarely, videos of poets might emerge. These videos carry an aura. I'm always a little stunned. 

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I was thinking of how special these videos are after a friend recently circulated a video of Kenward Elmslie made available by Ron Padgett. As Padgett describes: "Maxine Groffsky rediscovered a three-minute film she made of Kenward in 1972. In the first part he is in Louisville for a production of his musical (with Claibe Richardson) The Grass Harp. In the footage with him are the poet Gerritt Henry and the fellow who was directing the Louisville presentation. In the second part Kenward is in Calais, VT, in his vegetable garden and then walking back to his house. The film concludes with a guest star appearance by his dog, Whippoorwill."

The stills to the right are from the short film. The Jerry's Restaurant sign is just great, such a surprising yet perfect intersection of New York School artistic elegance with the monumental Americana that informs the humor of writers like Elmslie, John Ashbery, and Kenneth Koch. The shots from Calais are gorgeous, including iconic Whippoorwill in the yard, the dog that appears in paintings by Joe Brainard and who James Schuyler describes in "The Morning of the Poem," as my friend Aaron reminded me: "Yes, that whippet is / The one I nominate for terrestrial immortality … Love, love / Is immortal. Whippoorwill, I know that.” It's great to actually see the Calais house, too, which is described so often in Padgett's memoir of Brainard, Joe.

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Below are just a few videos I've returned to often, including a selection from Larry Fagin's home movies from 1968-69, the Ed Sanders portion of "USA: Poetry" that starts with the more well-known Frank O'Hara section, a section of a Spanish documentary on the Beat Generation that includes (from 7:56-9:27) a walk-through tour of Ted Berrigan's and Alice Notley's apartment at 101 St. Marks Place, a hijacked video of a Notley lecture by Cassandra Gillig, and a 1990 reading by Elmslie at the Poetry Project. I'm always devoted to videos of readings, and there are so many incredible ones on PennSound, the SF Poetry Center Digital Archive, and scattered across YouTube. But the video recordings of these poets being themselves, not reading poems, being people, and being in places they inhabited -- those videos carry a little magic. The archive is always alive, but it's special to see it in motion, body, kitchen, paintings, pets, and all. There are too many details in the videos below to describe, too many little moments that act as artifacts. Like in the Sanders video from late 1965 we're inside Peace Eye Book Store with him, seeing the books on display (including copies of William Burroughs's Time, Philip Whalen's Every Day, and the magazine Mother with a Brainard cover), and then Sanders in front of the East Village Other newspaper offices -- it's incredible. I'm not interested in whether they're representative or accurate, performative or realistic, just that they're these particular images of this particular moment or movement. You become familiar with a red sweater or two, a mannerism, and you start to recognize the poems a little differently. I'd like to watch these videos entirely unprofessionally. I think that's what I'm advocating for. I mean, I'm watching them and studying, whatever that needs to be.

Tom Weigel (1948-2017)

Poet Tom Weigel passed away at the age of 69 earlier this month. While I'm not very familiar with Weigel's work, his poems often appear in issues of The WorldMag City, and other New York School-related magazines that are a regular part of my research. Weigel's obituary describes him as an "artist, poet, and playwright [who] lived on NY’s lower east side during the 1970's and 80's and is recognized as a member of the 3rd generation of New York School Poets" and "an active participant at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the 1970’s and 1980’s." Poets and scholars familiar with the mimeo culture of the 70s and 80s might be more familiar with Weigel as the editor of Tangerine magazine (1981-1986) and publisher of Andrea Doria Books, which published books by Helena Hughes and Michael Scholnick as well as The Full Deck Anthology. Issue number 5 of Tangerine is a memorial issue for Ted Berrigan designed in the style of what would later be published as Nice To See You: An Homage to Ted Berrigan (Coffee House Press, 1991). It's a copy I've always wanted to see but haven't been able to find in the archive. The local New London, CT paper The Day has a full article on Weigel's passing that describes his past and recent life in more detail. 

My connection to Weigel is totally serendipitous. Last February I stopped in at A Book by Its Cover bookstore in Louisville, KY while traveling for a conference. I had corresponded with the owner about any New York School material he might have -- he had recently acquired a small collection of mimeo magazines and books, mostly copies of Mag City and a few issues of The World. I bought a couple pieces from him and before I left he handed me about a dozen loose sheets of paper that had been slipped into the mimeo magazines when he got them, saying he thought I would appreciate having them. In the stack there was a flyer for Mag City 5 with a Weigel poem and copies of letters from Gerard Malanga, but more surprisingly, there were six original typed poems by Weigel from throughout 1979, including at least two poems that Weigel wrote for a workshop with Alice Notley at the Poetry Project. As Alice says about the workshops she led at the Church at that time: "I don't remember my workshops in detail and didn't keep handouts or notes etc. The most extraordinary ones were probably the first and last ones. In the first one were people like Eileen Myles, Bob Holman, Susie Timmons. In the last one I assigned everyone to write and publish a book, which they did. We called ourself, as a press, Unimproved Editions Press, which I used as a rubric to publish on my own Steve Carey's 20 Poems. Between those two were several others, but god knows what we did -- it was always interesting, there were always a lot of weirdos around in the workshops and a sense of the Unprofessional. I mean really crazy people dropped by, all you had to do was show up -- not even enroll. Or pay."

The two poems for Notley's workshop are pictured below, the first written, as Weigel notes, for Notley's assignment to "Write a Creation Myth" and the second written on December 30, 1979 and signed. I've treasured both these poems since rather suddenly and unexpectedly being given them. The bookstore was our last stop before getting on the highway to drive home to Atlanta, and I remember reading the poems in the car and it seeming as if I had been looking for them. More than ephemera, they're rare association pieces that offer a little window into the aesthetic, social, and shared writing spaces of the Poetry Project in the late 70s in the midst of the national downturn in federal funding for arts programs and publishing. In fact, Weigel's poems for Notley's workshop were written after Ronald Reagan had been elected to his first term as President but before he had taken office, a liminal cultural space in a still thickly experimental, ever-changing Lower East Side. Of the two poems, I'm partial to "A Creation Myth," which for me is really lovely from "As a tribe spits back righteous & variable" all the way down. The last stanza is just great. While the second poem doesn't note what Notley's assignment was, it could have been to write a poem that begins and ends with overheard speech. If so, those are great lines. If you look closely you'll notice that both poems included spots where Weigel has used wite-out to correct typos -- on "Creation's" in the first poem and "serious" in the second. Archives are continually revealing the artist's hand, and its great to see the details of artifacts like these that hold so much wayward, living, personal energy.

RIP Tom Weigel: "When you wake / You'll be sand, yet whole"

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"It's not the way you're taught": from an Interview with Alice Notley

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My interview with Alice Notley, published on the occasion of the release of the vinyl LP Live in Seattle (Fonograf Editions), was recently published by the Poetry Society of America and can be read here. The interview is an edited selection from an hour and a half phone conversation between Atlanta and Paris that took place on September 16, 2017. Below are a few portions of our conversation that didn't make into the final piece. These excerpts are unedited and show more of the range of our conversation, including Notley's lifelong visual art practice, links to Chicago (where her and Berrigan lived in the early 1970s), relationship with artist George Schneeman, and what her collected poems might look like. Though not included in the published interview, these pieces are equally irreducible.

***

Nick Sturm: I spend a lot of time with your early work because the things that it does are so various from the things that your work has done since The Descent of Alette. And spending time with that work has changed the way I think about these different processes of writing. Whether it’s “Endless Day,” “September’s Book,” “Jack Would Speak Through the Imperfect Medium of Alice” – they’re so funny. Your work has always been funny. Like I think of the “Postcard” poem in Waltzing Matilda that begins “Dear Fuckface” and ends “Love Bubbles” that’s so blasphemous and fun and pleasurable. What I'm asking is: I wonder if you’ve ever had an experience like this--creating effects in your poems--where it doesn’t feel as if you’re writing but more like you’re arranging?

Alice Notley: I’m not that kind of writer. Other people are, but no, I write. I write and it comes out of me. I don’t arrange things. I don’t take things from different places and stitch them together or anything like that. Ted sometimes spoke as if he did that. But I’ve never done it. I have a voice coming into me and then out of me. A lot of time it’s somebody else’s voice. Like in the “Postcard” poem they’re all my voices but in each one I’m saying well I’m this person writing to this, although it’s all the same person. Then at the end the last one is “Dear Francis” and its signed Alice and at that point I have arrived at my voice. I was asked to discuss this in a class taught by Tom Devaney last November and then he asked me if Francis was Francis Waldman, Anne’s mother, and I said, “No, it’s Frank O’Hara!” and he started crying. [laughs] I said, “You’re crying!” and he didn’t know what to say.

***

Nick: These are little tangential things, but asking you about some important things that you’ve done that haven’t often been talked about. For example, your writing’s relationship to painting, your self-education in painting, going to museums, the incredible amount of visual work that you’ve made – collages, watercolors, and fans – and I was really excited to find out that you did a show at MoMA PS1 in 1980. It seemed as if you wrote the description of the show itself. You said something like, “It’s said there’s a relationship between her visual work and her poems. There is.” [Alice laughs] Which made me think it was absolutely written by you. I wonder about all of the work you’ve done making these objects.

Alice: I’m making them right now. I’m actually sitting talking to you at a table surrounded by the ones I’m in process with right now. I never stop making them but sometimes there are lapses because I haven’t finished one. But I’m always doing it. But I’ve interrupted your question.

Nick: I’m not sure there’s a question other than to let you talk about it.

Alice: My relationship to art. I’ve been very close friends with some artists, that started at the beginning as soon as I met Ted, then I met his friends. I got tremendously interested in the works that Joe Brainard and George Schneeman were doing. All of that whole art world opened up to me. But I had been interested in painting when I was in high school in Needles. I didn’t paint but I studied art history in a way. My mother ordered from the outside world a monthly book, like a set of lectures by John Canaday, that would come with these illustrations and prints and then I would look at them and read the description and try to figure out what he was talking and why he was talking about ti this way and I got very interested. When I met Ted everybody cut and pasted so I instantly started doing it and I never stopped. He and I would do it together. He would do it his way off in his corner and I would do it over in my corner. The way he did it was different from the way anyone else did it, and George Schneeman was totally fascinated by the way Ted worked with him when they collaborated. But I didn’t want to collaborate. I only wanted to collaborate with myself and that was my evil secret and it’s always been my evil secret that I that don’t want to do anything with anybody else. But I was so interested in George’s process and everybody said that he wouldn’t talk about his art. So I determined to make him talk about his art and went to see him all the time for that interview that’s also in Brilliant Corners.

Nick: And in Waltzing Matilda.

Alice: I went to ask him questions day after day and he became addicted to having me ask him questions, that was why he was willing to talk to me finally, I mean he just loved it. Then I wrote the essay kind of off-hand. Edwin [Denby] had really, really liked all of that, too. They really loved it that I had made George talk. You know, I was interested in all the people I refer to in the Art Institute essay, all of that, all those works. I was really torn up by postpartum depression and all that really healed and strengthened me, going out to the Art Institute and looking at the paintings then writing off them. All of the essays from that time are written out of a slight hysteria. They’re all written out of this desperation I felt at being depressed in that particular way. And I was always trying to declare myself well through the process of looking at this art and reading these books and writing these things, and I don’t know if that makes sense, but at a certain point I was healed. I was healed. I didn’t write those anymore and I didn’t have that tone anymore. I lost that particular tone but I was glad to because I felt better.

***

Alice: Poets have their own way of being critical and scholarly but it’s not the way you’re taught. And it can’t be systematized. For poets, it comes largely out of talking to each other, I think, and a lot of it happens when you’re young. You figure things out with your peers in late night drunken conversations and those are really important.

***

Nick: I wonder what it would look like to collect all of your works together. It would be this 2000-page collected poems. It’d be a suitcase-size book.

Alice: It’d be like a nineteenth century person, like Hugo or Charles Dickens or somebody.

"No more copies": Ted Berrigan and Marianne Moore

The names of artists like William Carlos Williams and Juan Gris populate Berrigan's The Sonnets, first published by "C" Press in a 1964 mimeograph edition, while in the echoey background texts by Arthur Rimbaud and Henri Michaux provide a purposefully mistranslated sonic architecture for Ted's poems. The braided devotion to sources that is the surface texture of The Sonnets is one of its most idiosyncratic, seductive characteristics, especially considering the range of works and artists that Berrigan culls sounds from, including his closest friends, literary heroes, musicians, and pulp fiction. However, reading The Sonnets we should be suspicious of any attempt to describe the sequence as the construction of a fixed personal canon. Berrigan is articulating a lineage but the poems never claim the establishment of a tradition. If anything, The Sonnets are marvelously disloyal both to the heritage of their form and to the context of their sources. The poems are about shape and sounds, texture as thought, not the secretive collection of a mastery of sources. These poems let a lot in. Ted's eagerness to send The Sonnets to a poet such as Conrad Aiken in January 1965, for example, gives a sense of his spacious, personal sense of his lineages and audience. As Ron Padgett writes in Ted, Aiken replied: "Thanks for sending me your book, which is fun, I think, but not quite my cup of mescal." Despite its generational flippancy, upon receiving this reply "Ted must have been flattered," Padgett writes.

As Berrigan says about the 1964 edition of The Sonnets, "This mimeograph edition we then mailed to every poet and anyone else too that I thought I would like really to have read it, by virtue of knowing their works." Despite Ted's willingness to distribute his work to poets he admired, I was still surprised to come across a folder in the "C: A Journal of Poetry Archive" in the Fales Library collection at NYU labeled "Correspondence and manuscripts - Marianne Moore." Ted had corresponded with Aiken, for example, and other writers as various as Charles Henri Ford and F.T. Prince, but Marianne Moore seemed like reaching into another world. Below is the first letter I encountered, from Moore to Berrigan, in which she ever-so-politely yet forcefully insists that she receive no further copies of "C."

 Courtesy of the Fales Library and Special Collections, NYU

Courtesy of the Fales Library and Special Collections, NYU

While the note is wholly reasonable, it definitely sounds like she's trying to get this "Ted Berrigan" to stop flooding her mailbox with these weird, over-sized mimeograph magazines. Moore's all-caps directive, "NO MORE COPIES," must have been at least a little deflating for Berrigan, even if her request was framed in these objective terms. By June 1964 Berrigan had already published eight issues of "C," filled with such un-Moorian poems as "Sonnet Written in the Time it Took Lauren Owen to Walk 100 Feet" by Padgett and "From the Gobble Gang Poems" by Ed Sanders. One imagines the issues stacking up on Moore's floor, the Warhol cover of issue number 4 of Gerard Malanga and Edwin Denby kissing staring up at her as she finishes final edits on "Granite and Steel." Simultaneous but wildly different New York's are overlapping in this note from Moore and it's great to see this piece of correspondence between two poets who are so avidly linked to the city's cultural imagination. Maybe there are more commonalities between their work than the narratives of 20th century American poetry are willing to provide. It's possible both Moore and Berrigan were "Dress[ing] in basic black / & reading a lovely old man's book: // BY THE WATERS OF THE MANHATTAN," as Ted writes in "Things to Do in New York (City)." Written when she was 76 years old though, Moore's austere note from Brooklyn does seem worlds away from Ted's burgeoning, pre-Poetry Project Lower East Side. 

Even more interesting is the handwritten note by Ted that Moore has returned to him with her own handwritten response. It seems that Moore was one of the poets to whom Ted sent a copy of The Sonnets. He writes: "Dear Miss Moore, Please excuse this further invasion of your privacy, but I'd like very much for you to have this copy of my book. Sincerely, Ted Berrigan." Below this Moore has responded: 

Keep the good throw out the bad, Mr. Berrigan. Page I makes sense to me, and your politeness (up above) -- But just neglect me for a while! And don't waste money on me, stamps or envelopes. Carve it all down. CONSERVE. M. Moore.

Moore seems to have returned the copy of The Sonnets he sent her, as along the left margin she's also written "(Perhaps you can sell the copy)." Her plea for him to be frugal would have likely resonated. The aesthetic prescription not so much. However, they seem to go hand-in-hand. It's possible to read Moore's insistence on a more scrupulous approach to writing and paper as a reaction to the new open field poetics and mimeo culture that was generated out of The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. It's funny though to see Moore describe how she "should hate to have the journal discarded" at the same moment she advises Berrigan to "throw out the bad" in his poems. Writing to Berrigan, trash is on her mind. Whether it's because she'd honestly like to "CONSERVE," as she says--to create more room in the room that she rooms in--or because she'd prefer not to be reading any more about how "high upon the Brooklyn Bridge / An ugly ogre masturbates by ear," we can't be sure. 

Nevertheless, this rare exchange between two irreducible American poets offers a way of imagining our contemporary and historical lineages beyond the established narratives of 20th century aesthetics. Ted likely sent NO MORE COPIES to Marianne Moore, but this little correspondence is a way of seeing Berrigan's generous, intergenerational approach to his sources, however supposedly unlikely. Moore's reply might still have been fresh in his mind when he traveled to the West Coast for the first time to read at the Berkeley Poetry Conference in July 1965, what he jokingly refers to as his "rookie of the year" appearance in American poetry. I'm imagining Ted meeting Robert Duncan for the first time and saying something like, "Marianne Moore politely told me to fuck off. So now I'm here."

Crystal Set #12: No Hassles: An Unhinged Book in Parts by Anne Waldman (Kulchur Foundation, 1971)

No Hassles: An Unhinged Book in Parts by Anne Waldman (Kulchur Foundation, 1971). Perfect bound, 151 pages, and dedicated to Edwin Denby, No Hassles is a fun, enigmatic book from early in Waldman's career that seems to be rarely mentioned in the limited scholarship on Waldman's work. Joanne Kyger quotes from it repeatedly in a 2005 essay "Anne Waldman: The Early Years... 1965–1970" in Jacket. Kyger writes: "33 St. Mark’s Place became familiar over the next year after poetry readings, on visits. Lots of people. Lots of funny outrageous behavior. Why are Ted Berrigan and Carol Gallup staying so long in the bathroom? I was still watching 30 minutes later, but everyone else had forgotten." And Kyger again, to set the stage for No Hassles: "In 1970 when Anne is 25, Ted Berrigan writes of her poetry (on the dust jacket of Baby Breakdown) as “an open circle with her many selves at or near the center, and those selves deal honestly and openly and passionately with what is happening to her, all of us, right now. That’s what Anne Waldman’s poetry is. NOW. Technically, she is impeccable. If her poems are clumsy in places, those are clumsy places. She knows what she is doing.... This book is an ordinary miracle.”

 Cover by Brigid Polk.

Cover by Brigid Polk.

No Hassles is a textual performance of what Ted calls Anne's "many selves," filled with art work by Joe Brainard, Donna Dennis, and George Schneeman, photographs, and collaborative pieces with Berrigan, Michael Brownstein, Ron Padgett, Bill Berkson, Lewis Warsh, Kenward Elmslie, and others to present a book that, rather than a typical poetry collection, is slightly "unhinged" from our expectations about how poems might be presented in a way that reflect and embody the social and aesthetic intimacy the poet has with her friends, many of whom are artists. Described on the title page as "poems, stories, heartaches, collaborations, comics & photographs," the book acts as an early experiential encyclopedia of New York School aesthetics. It's really just very fun to read and bounce around in. The title is doing the double work of sloughing off traditional literary expectations, with the cover image by Brainard of Waldman writing the book's title illustrating the straightforward, on-the-spot spontaneity and intimacy of her aesthetic, while also embodying a generational state of mind in the immediate post-60s Lower East Side, like, get off my back, we're living no hassles. It's also just a great little strange sound -- "no hassles." There's a huge American imagination in the book as Waldman is building this set of communities together in herself and in her work, linking the East and West coast poetry scenes, being with and in the work of all these artists and poets, driving around the country, running the Poetry Project. It's about being "in touch" in all the ways that resonates. The book kind of reminds me of Notley's Watlzing Matilda, if only because it's a longer book that includes this range of forms (poems and prose) and a long interview Alice did with George Schneeman, which is incredible. It's an irreducible, idiosyncratic book that way. It doesn't let you get all the way around it. You go through it and let it break all over. Some of my favorite poems in the book are "Bernadette," which is just the one word "cigarette," and the poem "Answer to Them," dedicated to Peter Schjeldahl that reads "Fuck all those guys in power! / We'll take care of business / with a little help from Anonymous." I also love the ending of the poem "Movie (But You'd Better Not Cry)": "Now more than ever it seems necessary to embrace them // & take into consideration / the full meaning of Jim."

 "BOAT RIDES from photo of author by Michael Brownstein taken Oct. 1969 in Chicago," from "Some Credit Notes."

"BOAT RIDES from photo of author by Michael Brownstein taken Oct. 1969 in Chicago," from "Some Credit Notes."

Anne was just here in Atlanta for two days for the opening of an exhibit at Emory's Rose Library, "The Dream Machine: The Beat Generation and the Counterculture, 1940-1975." There's this main stereotypical narrative that Anne is somehow "the last living Beat" because of all her work with Ginsberg founding and running the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, because of the performative nature of her work, the way she trances the page into song in the tradition of Ginsberg, and her long path into Buddhism. There are definitely later books where a "Beat" thing is coming in and being remade for Anne's purposes, which are not Kerouac's or Corso's purposes, for example. But in early works like No Hassles Anne is completely a New York School poet, second generation or whatever, having a lot of very smart fun. Talking with her this past week about this book she told me that Lita Hornick, the publisher of Kulchur, showed up at the release party for No Hassles with all the copies of the book actually unbound, in these piles, because she had taken the subtitle "an unhinged book in parts" literally. "You can imagine," she said, "I was terrified." Nevertheless, the book was eventually printed and actually bound, and Anne went on to do a lot of amazing things, which she's still doing. Anne is irreducible and a very tender, funny person. See "BOAT RIDES" to the right for evidence. Below are a series of pages from No Hassles that give a sense of how special and varied the book is, including a comic with Brainard that, I believe, doesn't appear anywhere other than this book.

 "Spirit-Graph" from "Weekend" by Waldman, Warsh, Berkson, Elmslie, and Brainard.

"Spirit-Graph" from "Weekend" by Waldman, Warsh, Berkson, Elmslie, and Brainard.

 Left: "OUT TO LUNCH drawing one of those fold-over-pass-to-the-next guys in 4 parts done with Ted Berrigan & Lewis Warsh & ?, sometime 1967." Right: NARCOLEPSY my first collaboration with Ted written at 33 St. Marks Place, NYC Fall 1967."

Left: "OUT TO LUNCH drawing one of those fold-over-pass-to-the-next guys in 4 parts done with Ted Berrigan & Lewis Warsh & ?, sometime 1967." Right: NARCOLEPSY my first collaboration with Ted written at 33 St. Marks Place, NYC Fall 1967."

 Page 1: "WHITE NOISE with Joe Brainard Calais Vermont 1969-NYC 1970."

Page 1: "WHITE NOISE with Joe Brainard Calais Vermont 1969-NYC 1970."

 Page 2-3: "WHITE NOISE with Joe Brainard Calais Vermont 1969-NYC 1970."

Page 2-3: "WHITE NOISE with Joe Brainard Calais Vermont 1969-NYC 1970."

 Page 4-5: "WHITE NOISE with Joe Brainard Calais Vermont 1969-NYC 1970."

Page 4-5: "WHITE NOISE with Joe Brainard Calais Vermont 1969-NYC 1970."

 Page 6-7: "WHITE NOISE with Joe Brainard Calais Vermont 1969-NYC 1970."

Page 6-7: "WHITE NOISE with Joe Brainard Calais Vermont 1969-NYC 1970."

When you see me on the street you yell "Jesus Christ!": Ted Berrigan and The Fugs

Daniel Kane's new book, "Do You Have a Band?": Poetry and Punk Rock in New York City (Columbia University Press, 2017), investigates a lineage of punk icons like Richard Hell and Patti Smith who inherited, appropriated, and furiously (dis)assembled their aesthetics out of and in unison with the poets and poetic lineages associated with New York City's Lower East Side. At the same time, Kane suggests, writers like Eileen Myles and Dennis Cooper were modeling their divergent styles, personas, and little magazines on their punk peers and predecessors. Kane's portrait of the reciprocity and defiance between innovative poetries and genre-bending musicians comes out of a deep, generous archival dive that includes the author's own interviews with many of the artists that populate the book's narratives. For example, I was totally delighted to get this story from Bill Berkson about going to shows at the Filmore, the iconic short-lived venue on Second Avenue (see Ada Calhoun's St. Marks is Dead for more Fillmore tales), which arranges surprising trinities like Ted Berrigan, Miles Davis, and Neil Young in one irreducible space:

I went to many shows at the Fillmore with Ted Berrigan, Michael Brownstein, Jim Carroll and others. The most amazing was a double bill featuring Neil Young and Miles Davis -- more properly, Miles Davis with his Bitches Brew contingent opening for Neil Young and Crazy Horse! [Rock 'n' roll music...] was in the room, the turntable, everywhere all the time. Lines from songs got into the poems, and the poems, like our conversations, learned to ride on this stream of continuous music.

In the play and energy of all this "continuous music," I love seeing Kane point to connections between specific bands and poets, noting how lines from the Velvet Underground's "I'm Beginning to See the Light" made their way into Berrigan's and Anne Waldman's poem "Memorial Day," "a text that owed as much to Charles Olson's characterization of the manuscript page as a field on which words could dance wildly as it did to Lou Reed and his friends." Rather than discuss a poetics of sociability in terms of "coterie" poetics, Kane describes the patterns of devotion between New York School poets and their various sources as wayward, flexible, and inclusive. The book questions our romanticized associations betweens poetry and music, and between musicians and poets, while recognizing how a sound or a lyric can float into a poem as a way to explode what language (or noise) is available. I appreciate Kane's thinking about "bad" writing and "minor art," too. Kane's description of work that is easily dismissed, and his explanation of why he's drawn to supposedly easily reducible work, resonates with the relationship I have with some of Berrigan's poems. Here's Kane in an interview with Andy Fitch about "Do You Have a Band?":

 from  The Fugs  album cover, with liner notes by Allen Ginsberg that reference a lineage of counterculture figures for the author of "Howl": Burroughs, Whitman, Dylan, and others.

from The Fugs album cover, with liner notes by Allen Ginsberg that reference a lineage of counterculture figures for the author of "Howl": Burroughs, Whitman, Dylan, and others.

I’m really drawn to work that many people would understandably dismiss as fairly inconsequential. A text that always comes up for me when thinking about my love for “fun” poetry is a little Ted Berrigan one-liner titled “Kinks.” The entire poem is as follows: “I am kinks.” I also think back to work like Aram Saroyan’s one-word blasts, or even maybe his relatively epic works, such as an untitled poem which reads in its entirety “Ron Padgett / would approve / this idea.” These texts seem to me to represent an attitude towards poetry in which loose conversation or even a simple happy grunt is an idealized primary response. I’m not saying here that reading such works through a rigorous intellectual framework is somehow “bad,” by the way. I’m all for both/and.

One of the bands that appears throughout Kane's book is The Fugs, the notoriously noisy, unevenly "bad" proto-punk band led by poet Ed Sanders, the editor of the infamous mimeo magazine Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. Kane's narratives on Sanders's band reminded me that last year I bought a vinyl reprint of the second Fugs album, The Fugs, released in 1966, which includes the B-side track "Doin' All Right" written by Ted Berrigan with Lee Crabtree and Vinny Leary. I went looking for the album because of the song by Berrigan and, miraculously, a local record store had a copy for sale. The live version of the song, which you can listen to in the video below, begins with Sanders announcing "Ladies and gentleman, it gives The Fugs great pleasure, when the author himself is in the audience, to present tonight for almost its world premiere, the new Fug hit at the [inaudible], by the honorable Ted Berrigan..."Doin' All Right"!" At the end of the song Sanders yells "Author, author, author!" cajoling the audience into recognizing Berrigan who, surrounded by a clapping, hooting crowd announces, "That's the greatest song I've ever heard." Laughter fills the room. It's an incredible moment to have on tape.

The Fugs sound like a Captain Beefheart-Rolling Stones-DEVO mash-up, or Tom Waits giving an SDS speech to The Muppets, or Donovan yelling through wet noodles. The sonic dissonance between tracks, like the sound effects heavy, circus-y anti-war anthem "Kill for Peace" followed by the warm lullaby-like "Morning Morning," is smoothed over by both songs' parodic lyrics and raucous performative buffoonery. "Morning Morning" might sound like a sunny, introspective love song but Tuli Kupferberg's lyrics carry all the Fuck You-style sarcasm and absurdity of Sanders's "Total Assault on the Culture"-approach to music: "Moon shine moon shine / Moon shine drugs the hills with grace / And the secret of the shining / Seeks to break my simple face." It's like a cartoon Cat Stevens. 

Berrigan picks up the Total Assault in "Doin' All Right," an upbeat bearded-hipster-about-town narrative where "I'm not ever gonna go to Vietnam / I'd prefer to stay right here and screw your mom." Rather than the heavy existential-political crisis in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Almost Cut My Hair," released six years later in 1970, where the narrator feels "like letting my freak flag fly / And I feel like I owe it, to someone," the narrator's beard in "Doin' All Right" is a sign of silly apathy and masculine sexual freedom, just "the hairs grownin' around my nose and throat" that make everyone else cry out in anger and disgust: "When you see me on the street you yell "Jesus Christ!" / But I'm getting mine / I'm doin' all right." The joke continues with a reference to a well-known but oddly worded Gillette razor slogan, "How are you fixed for blades?" which was traditionally sung by a cartoon parrot in Gillette commercials throughout the 1950s:

When I walk down the street
The people that I meet
Hold their noses and say
"How are you fixed for blades?"
But I just walk on by
I don't even hear 'em
Because I'm high

Even though these songs are thoroughly parodic and tongue-in-cheek, lyrics like "The only gook an / American can trust / Is a gook that's got / His yellow head bust" in "Kill for Peace" and "And I'm getting almost as much pussy as the spades" in "Doin' All Right" can and should be read as examples of the willingness of mid-1960s white counterculture to perpetuate racist stereotypes and employ racist language. Even if these satirical lyrics are being used to critique traditional American mores and the racist otherings that prop up those values, The Fugs are tossing out these derogatory terms to a mostly white youth audience that sees itself in opposition to a mostly white conventional audience. While Kane's book expertly explores how protest, literature, an expanding feminist ethos, and the intergenerational, interdisciplinary aesthetics of poets and musicians fostered the birth of punk culture on the Lower East Side, the book does not chart how race or racism influenced or underlined the discourses and aesthetic transformations that defined punk.

David Berrigan, Ted's son with Sandy Berrigan, once wrote a short, memorable piece called "Ted's Music" that mentions "Doin' All Right" and gives an amazing portrait of Berrigan's relationship with the music of his generation. I'll close this post by quoting the last half of David Berrigan's piece, from 2012:

This year I was in Stockholm, which has a lot of vintage vinyl shops, I had a mission to find a copy of the Fugs eponymous album because it includes the track “Doin Allright” [sic] that Ted wrote [...]. I already had a copy, but I wanted two so both my sons could have one. Maybe they will have record players someday. Jim Carroll also based a song “People who Died” on one of dad’s poem of the same name. You can find both versions online. I remember, briefly, wishing he could write a few popular songs and make a lot of money.
In 1977 I played him “Hey There Little Insect" by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. I don’t think he was impressed, but it presaged my entomological career. I think dad loved Dylan the most, our penultimate visit was at my graduation from Reed College in Portland OR in 1983, I lived with friends in a big old house. They had a good stereo and a lot of records. I remember dad lying on the floor in front of the records singing along to "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" and scoping out the collection.
He used to say that poets had to lift their voices up in song.

"It was wonderful": Ted Berrigan's Screen Shot

In the far corners of the art-minded, archival internet, impossible things tend to emerge. Here is a recording of an interview with Andy Warhol at the Factory in 1965 which happens to include a slice of conversation between the interviewer, Gerard Malanga, and Ted Berrigan.

This recording was made the day that Warhol did a screen test of Berrigan, a still of which appears on the back cover of Nice To See You. Some googling led me to this after reading Reva Wolf’s Andy Warhol, Poetry, and Gossip in the 1960s where she quotes a transcript of the interview. I’m writing an essay about Berrigan’s novel Clear the Range, part of which is about Berrigan’s relationship to Warhol and Pop Art, so hearing them talking together here is amazing. I’d love to see the actual screen test, too. Warhol also did screen tests of Ashbery and Ginsberg. A lot of this is a combination of background noise, music playing,  whitenoise, phone calls about parties and money, inaudible voices, an on-and-off interview, and normal chatter in keeping with Factory-era audio recordings. The entire thing is pretty incredible. The description says Brainard is here but I can’t pick out his voice.

“Andy Warhol interviewed by teenage David Ehrenstein at the Factory on March 3, 1965. It’s a real trip. Special appearances by, Gerard Malanga, Ted Berrigan, Joe Brainard, a Rolling Stones LP, calls from Bob Brown and Nancy Fish.”

The above description is from http://www.teenagefilm.com/archives/dear-diary/andy-warhol-interviewed-by-a-teenager/ who reblogged it from Dennis Cooper who originally posted it on his blog in 2007 via Ehrenstein.

Screen Shot 2017-09-27 at 9.26.39 AM.png

An excerpt starting at 9:17:

Ehrenstein: What about Screen Test?

Malanga: Uhhh, no comment.

Ehrenstein: No comment. Could we ask him about the movie?

Malanga: Oh yeah. (in background) Ted Berrigan, what about the movie you just did?

Berrigan: What about it? (laughter)

Ehrenstein: Did you like what you did?

Berrigan: Uh sure, it was wonderful.

Ehrenstein: You said tears were coming into your eyes.

Berrigan: I was looking at the light, to see what it looked like, and (mic cuts out) …It was all really wonderful. I loved myself every second. (laughs) I looked at the camera and it looked like, the light made it look like a big blue flower and so I looked at it each time until the flower effect wore off and then I looked at the light for a few more minutes until it came on again.

I WAS LOOKING AT THE LIGHT, TO SEE WHAT IT LOOKED LIKE

“All this pain is necessary”: Amiri Baraka’s SOS: Poems 1961-2013

My review of SOS: Poems, 1961-2013 can be read in full at ArtsATL.

"In mostly white classrooms at many universities, Amiri Baraka’s poems are assigned in brief, dramatic portions. This, at least, was my experience. A student might read “Black Art,” a poem that agitates easy classroom conversations about what a poem can say, want and do with its vivid amplification of a black united front in the wake of the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. The poems in Baraka’s first collection, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), present a teachable narrative of dissatisfaction and resistance to the white hegemony of the American poetry scene, whether Beat, Black Mountain, Bay Area or New York School. A teacher might explain that Baraka left his white, Jewish wife and moved to Harlem in 1965, abandoning the name LeRoi Jones and organizing the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School. The conversation might end by mentioning that Baraka’s term as Poet Laureate of New Jersey was cut short after his poem about 9/11, “Somebody Blew Up America,” was accused of being anti-Semitic. For the most part, these are the institutionally sanctioned touchstones of Baraka’s influence on American poetry."

THE POLLOCK STREETS: TED BERRIGAN’S ART WRITING

My essay on Ted Berrigan's short-lived yet prolific work as an art critic for ARTnews can be read in full at Fanzine, where it was published as "Part 1" and "Part 2." 

From Part 1:

"In the early-mid 60’s, Berrigan was saturated in the aesthetic accelerant of the hybridizing New York art scene, regularly attending museums, plays, and operas, watching French New Wave films, avidly reading about the modernist avant-gardes, and collaborating with other poets and painters. He was a casual visitor at The Factory and Warhol even gifted him a Brillo Box that, as Ron Padgett describes, Berrigan “personalized” into a clustered, stained coffee table in much the same way he “personalized” lines from other poets into his own works, such as The Sonnets. It was a time of floating silver foil, cut-ups, and Blonde on Blonde and Berrigan stood giddily and seriously in the middle of it. In 1964, looking back at his first few years in New York, Berrigan writes “Joe [Brainard] and I used to go almost every day to art galleries and museums and drench ourselves in paintings, starting up at 86th street and Madison, and hitting just about every gallery from there to the [M]useum of Modern Art where we would sit in the garden and have coffee delirious with all that art and the way even the telephone poles and drugstores had turned into paintings after a few galleries.” These are “the Pollock streets” of The Sonnets, an aesthetic stage where Berrigan’s keen associational eye was able to trace a generative compendium of artistic influences and historical networks, such as when he claimed Jean Dubuffet “is Paul Klee as King Kong” after seeing a show of Dubuffet’s at MoMA. When Berrigan started writing for ARTnews in March 1965, it was part of his continued, fluid engagement with an intimate, generative community of artists."

From Part 2:

"In his 1966 article, Berrigan calls this ability of Grooms his “Red Power.” Continuing the earlier association with the comics, he writes,

I like Red’s paintings even better than the funnies, mostly because they are so much richer. There is more detail, less story, more mystery and less art as art. Because his paintings are not so neat, and because the people and things (tables, dogs, window-curtains, playing cards, hands) seem so important simply because they exist, Red’s paintings sometimes seem very scary. The domestic scenes he has painted, such as Loft on 26th Street, the cut-out painting of 1966, are much more haunting than they are delightful, despite their bright Pop colors and the near-comic air of domesticity they strike. In fact, there is something awful about the autonomy of each person and object pictured, as if someone or everything could very well go totally berserk at any instant and it would be just as logical as not.

The combination of a hectic, disorienting surface paired with a colloquial vision of representational depth was one of Berrigan’s own poetic modes. Grooms’s ability to charge a piece with intimacy, humor, and pathos, all the while approaching and appropriating the work’s own aesthetic influences with a witty, devotional self-reflexivity, seems to have made him one of Berrigan’s favorite artists at the time. That he describes his appreciation of Grooms’s paintings in narrative terms–“more detail, less story, more mystery and less art as art”–speaks to a turn in Berrigan’s writing signaled by the more immediately domestic, autobiographical poems that would appear in Many Happy Returns. This idiosyncratic approach to representing the personal runs through each of the three artists Berrigan wrote about in his feature articles, and it is worth noting how conscientious and passionate Berrigan is about portraits and paintings full of people. His poems have exactly that intricately layered devotion to the people in his own life, and like these artists, such representations were always about the poem rather than about the person, a valuing that never resulted in loss of feeling. The presence of people, of friends, was an occasion for making art."

 Alex Katz, "Ted Berrigan," 1967

Alex Katz, "Ted Berrigan," 1967

CRYSTAL SET #11: Hymns of St. Bridget by Frank O'Hara and Bill Berkson (Adventures in Poetry, 1974)

Hymns of St. Bridget by Frank O'Hara and Bill Berkson (Adventures in Poetry, 1974). Stapled with a cover by Larry Rivers, the book is 20 pages long and includes 9 poems written together by O'Hara and Berkson, as the back matter says, “between 1960 and 1962, mostly in New York. Some of them appeared in Evergreen Review and Chicago.” Every poem’s title has something to do with Saint Bridget, like “St. Bridget’s Hymn to William de Kooning” and “In the Summer House (With St. Bridget).” The idea for the collaboration started when Berkson and O'Hara were walking down First Avenue and noticed the bent steeple of St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church. Berkson then wrote a poem in imitation of O'Hara about the steeple, “Hymn to St. Bridget’s Steeple,” which became the first poem in the book. Berkson showed the poem to O'Hara, who responded by suggesting they write a series of St. Bridget poems together. The “limp and ridiculous” steeple, as Berkson describes it, also appears in O'Hara’s well-known poem “Steps,” written on October 18, 1960, the same time he was writing these poems with Berkson: “How funny you are today New York / like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime / and St. Bridget’s steeple leaning a little to the left.”

Wikipedia tells me a lot of good things about Saint Bridget, including that “as a child, she once gave away her mother’s entire store of butter. The butter was then replenished in answer to Brigit’s prayers,” but most importantly for Berkson and O'Hara, Saint Bridget/Brigit was “a woman of poetry, and poets worshipped her, for her sway was very great and very noble.” (This is a terrific use of “sway.”) Also, Bríg, the Celtic version of Bridget, invented keening, a combination weeping and singing, hence the “hymns.”

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These poems map out the physical, emotional, and social space of Manhattan for the two poets, as Berkson signals in the first lines by locating St. Bridget’s on “ninth street,” but then quickly turning to “it doesn’t matter, you are my dream / of an actual winter.” The second poem, “St. Bridget’s Neighborhood,” is maybe the best poem in the book, and is written in couplets with small caesuras separating phrases. Instead of describing the poem I’ll just quote two amazing passages. First these lines from about halfway through the poem: “I have a headache / I want to have heartache   (to begin:) // My heart is corresponding oddly and with odd things and I / sometimes wonder if the future holds nothing // but the Surgical-Dental Supply Co. and Disney / the light is getting dim and a softness is settling // over the aluminum appliances and the fire escapes / and a fresh green paint over my royal flush heart.” And these lines, which end the poem: “I rather like these minor attentions when I / am not alone and it is nice for me when you are not alone // An orchestra is never alone   St. Bridget is never alone / although she must feel lonely when we ask her such questions // Is the nest an animal too?”

I was also super stoked that yogurt shows up here, in “Song Heard Around St. Bridget’s,” because O'Hara has some great poems with yogurt in them and it’s important to keep track of those. “When you’re in love the whole world’s Polish / and your heart’s in a gold stripped frame / you only eat cabbage and yogurt / and when you sign you don’t sign your own name.” Yogurt actually comes up again in this poem but I’m not going to overdo it and quote more yogurt lines.

Here are more great lines from other poems: “no more fuzzy fatigue / though we’re still asleep / walking through the gardens of Sceaux / to the frozen dahlia exhibit / lying there like income tax forms” (from “St. Bridget in the Metro”)

“you are attractive and poor   you are a horse” (from “St. Bridget’s Efficacy”)

“you are not unlike a blue and pink and bong / de Kooning” and “bravo bravo bravo bravo as usual / because I was not logical I was crying and I flushed / the tears down the drain back to the salt like on / the wharf the pier the pier-ess   Two becomes one often / enough to keep the floodgates closed against art / or any abstraction which might make us one / instead of two singular steeples necessarily / together” (from “St. Bridget’s Hymn to William de Kooning”) Obviously here Berkson and O'Hara are describing the act of collaborating that incorporates gender in a really amazing way.

The last poem in the book, “St. Bridget’s Hymn to Philip Guston,” has an epigraph from Gertrude Stein, “Why do you beat Sunday” (can’t find what book it’s from) and is pretty long, 6 pages, and plays with separated columns of lines that can’t be read be horizontally, so it’s like the two columns have to be read by two voices simultaneously a la Ashbery’s “Litany.” The de Kooning and Guston poems are both longer and look, on the page, like O'Hara’s poems from the time with the long lines and spacing of poems like “Ave Maria” and “Having a Coke with You.” The word “eagle-nutted” also appears in this poem.

“Us Looking Up to St. Bridget” includes the lines “St. Bridget may not protect you but she / does keep you alive if that’s your idea of a good time.” This line stayed with Berkson for a long time, maybe in a way tied to O'Hara’s death, and later became the title of the collaborative correspondence book assembled between him and Bernadette Mayer, What’s Your Idea of a Good Time? In a letter to Bernadette in response to the question “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” Bill writes, “I was incredibly mean to Frank O'Hara one time: I shouted at him for liking the sound of his own voice too much. I think now it was out of envy. It’s one of the few things, maybe the only one, I feel a physical hellfire damnation about, partly because he was so vulnerable to the attack, he didn’t retaliate.” Like so many of the other New York school collabs, Hymns of St. Bridget is an incredible record of a friendship of thinking and loving together, a difficult, expansive necessity.

“I am the cushion of your soul your ambition your beauty

and I am glad and that is my hymnal next to the Bowery

that is my bower next to your beautiful Self that’s IT”

CRYSTAL SET #10: Bolinas Journal by Joe Brainard (Big Sky, 1971)

Bolinas Journal by Joe Brainard (Big Sky, 1971). Printed in a run of 300 copies, the book is 45 pages of undated journalistic entries with drawings throughout, including excerpts of a comic made will Bill Berkson with a Pop-Eye dick and Nancy vagina, versions of posters for readings given during his month in northern California, drawings of friends (a great one of Berkson), a map of Bolinas, a portrait of Joe by Philip Whalen (with “Joe knits up a careful tennis shoe white thread” written underneath), a little poem written by Ted in his hand, and handwritten introductions for Joanne Kyger and Bobbie Creeley by Joe for a reading in San Francisco (the poems read by Bobbie were her Fifteen Poems, republished by Belladonna* in 2012). The cover is a reproduction of the classic black and white Mead notebooks. It was the first book published by Berkson’s Big Sky Books.

Brainard wrote Bolinas Journal from May-July 1971 while on an extended visit to Bolinas, CA from NYC to spend time with friends, including Bill Berkson, Lewis Warsh, Philip Whalen, Joanne Kyger, Robert Creeley, Bobbie Creeley (now Bobbie Hawkins), Diane di Prima, Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley (Ted and Alice visited around the same time as Joe), Tom Clark, Lewis MacAdams, and Donald Allen. Anne Waldman and Kenward Elmslie are also mentioned (via mail and phone calls). He stayed with the Creeleys and then lived in a house shared with Whalen (one page is a drawing Joe made of two notes Whalen left him in the kitchen). I’m pretty sure Ron Padgett mentions in his memoir about Brainard, Joe, that Bolinas Journal was planned to be published all along, which makes sense. Not that the writing is premeditated, it’s the same sort of frank, self-conscious, funny, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes totally glowing prose as I Remember, but reading Bolinas Journal as a project is interesting, and with as much as Brainard obsessed and flamed his own anxieties about “work,” Bolinas Journal is a prismatic example of pleasure-as-work, and vice versa, or what it means to produce work as an artist traveling, or what a community of artists is or does (especially since Bolinas is often referred to as the west coast hub of the New York school).

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Regardless, it’s a really good book. In a review of Brainard’s Collected WritingsMarjorie Perloff describes Bolinas Journal as “boring,” saying about his journalistic writings and interviews in general that they are “not profound” and that “there is something missing here.” About the Collected as a whole she says, “300+ pages of such material may be too much.” I wonder what Perloff means by “boring” – as in nothing happens, or that it’s tedious? She probably means trite or shallow or inconsequential, i.e. “not profound.” The tired critic’s contradictory tropes of excess, both “too much” and “something missing,” betray the hollowness behind Perloff’s aesthetic devaluing, that Brainard’s particular and astoundingly unique dismissal of genre (both in his visual art and writing) doesn’t conform to received (or even progressive?) notions of literary purpose or beauty. Overall, she seems to find little value in Brainard’s writing other than that it is occasionally “amusing.” Leaving aside the critic’s larger political-aesthetic project, it seems to me difficult to read Bolinas Journal and not be equally delighted and decimated. If anything, this book has a kind of frayed elegance. And I mean frayed in the most permissible, potentially terrifying (for the writer) way, that it exposes the effects of a strain, the strain of being openly gay in the mostly heterosexual community of Bolinas and the strain of being an artist with deep anxieties about the quality and process of his own work. Brainard picks at these strains throughout:

“Being queer isn’t an easy habit to break. And usually, I have no desire to….And I do think that being ‘queer’ is an unnecessarily limiting as being 'straight.’”; “How I can be so shy and insecure, and such a conceited ass at the same time, is beyond me.”; “As for me - I was a bit embarrassed by my New York City diaries. (So melodramatic) And I wonder about my being somewhat 'primitive,’ and knowing it. And taking advantage of it.”; “The funniest things are hard to admit. Pills. That’s a hard thing to admit. That I take them. No, that’s not hard to admit. What’s hard to admit is that I needthem. (Sometimes) Thank God I’m vain enough not to let myself get carried away tho. And I take them only for work.”

Does Brainard calling his own homosexuality a “habit” point to anything less than a crisis? And I don’t mean that in a dramatic sense of personal disaster, but that referring to being queer as a habitual burden and then immediately observing that dichotomous sexuality is socially constructed, a deft turn to say the least, is exactly that frayed elegance Perloff misses, where the crisis is the writing’s own irresolvable position. That Brainard does this so simply (I want to say “does this with a surface that is also a depth,” but a surface that never trusts the stability of itself as a surface is probably better) shows how full and charged (over-full, glamorous, exuberant) the choices are in this writing. Also, how are these not two of the best sentences you’ve ever read?

“Another thing nobody likes around here is the postmistress Rose.”

“A little girl wants a quarter. Giving her a nickel she mumbles 'mother-fucker’ and walks away.”

There’s also this brief story about Joe losing a very old and expensive baroque pearl and emerald pendant on the beach during a 4th of July party, which is accompanied by a drawing of the lost pendant on the page next to it. The baroque pearl reminded me of the recent conversation about the baroque as aesthetic sparked by Stephen Burt’s essay about the “Nearly Baroque,” where the contemporary baroque (overwrought, visceral, decadent, excessive) is founded on a kind of deficiency (Perloff’s “something missing”). Joe’s reaction to losing the “imperfect” baroque pearl is compelling, and it seems, if you wanted to, that you could lay these sentences right on top of the Perloff/Burt argument, as if Brainard’s “loss,” which he experiences in a positive way as surprisingly casual affirmation of value, is exactly where critics might respond negatively to a lack of profundity:

“Funny tho, instead of reacting to the loss, I somehow got outside of myself, waiting and watching to see how I would react. Which I didn’t. I mean - I just more or less said to myself 'Well, it’s gone.’ Let me tell you that it really was a beautiful pearl. Very valuable too. And my most favorite thing.”

There’s a lot more to say about Bolinas Journal, how it deals with friendship and gossip, how it confronts sexuality and gender (and how it may be complicit with traditional values at times), how it refuses overused tropes about the New York school, how it performs the concept of illustration, how it works as a collaborative book, and so on. Copies of the original Bolinas Journal are rare (this one is ILLed from Arizona State), but it’s worth getting Brainard’s Collected, where it’s reproduced in full, if only to see the drawings. The last line of the book is:

“My idea of how to leave a place gracefully is to 'disappear.’”