Crystal Set #19: Phoebe Light by Alice Notley

Phoebe Light by Alice Notley (Big Sky Books, 1973). 40 pages, saddle stapled, an uncommon binding method for a Big Sky publication. Cover art by Alex Katz.

IMG_6312.jpeg

Today is the first day of Scorpio season, so it’s a good day to read any book by Alice Notley, who is a Scorpio. Phoebe Light is Notley’s second book but her first printed offset following the mimeographed 165 Meeting House Lane (“C” Press, 1971). Notley’s first four books—165 Meeting House Lane, Phoebe Light, Incidentals in the Day World, and For Frank O’Hara’s Birthday—are increasingly hard to find. It’s actually easiest to read 165 Meeting House Lane in its entirety by buying All Stars (there are copies for sale for less than $4), the 1972 anthology edited by Tom Clark, which includes Notley’s whole sonnet sequence along with long segments of work by Ted Berrigan, James Schuyler, Philip Whalen, and others. This is a considerable rare book hack since copies of 165 Meeting House Lane are always over a grand. Phoebe Light, Incidentals, and For Frank O’Hara’s Birthday all range from $100-$300. I got my copy two years ago for $50, which seems impossible now. Reading these books is important because they’re scarcely represented in Selected Poems of Alice Notley (Talisman, 1993) and Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2005 (Wesleyan, 2006)—”Dear Dark Continent” is the one poem from Phoebe Light that appears in either selected (it’s in both) and it was also published in Incidentals in the Day World, suggesting the value of that poem to Notley. I remember a conversation about “Dear Dark Continent” in Andrew Epstein’s New York School class, how it gave us a starting point for talking about Notley’s arrangements of self, family, and making a life in poetry, so I’m glad that poem has continued to be in circulation via Grave of Light. But the secret is that Phoebe Light is full of these incredible poems—31 in all—including ”To My Father,” “Poker Hand,” “Getting to Sleep, Chicago,” and “Creatures,” that show—not development—but the way Notley was starting to gather and amplify a sound. Phoebe Light has this stance to it, like it’s this mind that is all wit and music, with these slightly peeling edges of photographic clarity. I’ve been teaching a class on New York School coming-of-age narratives through books like Brainard’s I Remember and Notley’s Mysteries of Small Houses, and though this book doesn’t track a stark narrative movement, it does benefit from being read in the context of coming-into a life and world of thinking, especially in how these poems show the concerns that will become central throughout her books. Written in Iowa, Chicago, Bolinas, and New York—and written partly while pregnant with her and Berrigan’s first son—it’s an astounding early work that confirms the voice(s), themes, and departures that make Notley’s work so irreducible.

A range of kinds of poems are included in Phoebe Light, including “Conversation,”—a John Giorno-style two-column poem that staggers dialogue like a cassette tape constantly looping back on itself—”The Development of My Mind and Character”—a swerving faux-autobiographical prose allegory that ends “Then I became a lesbian, had a baby, killed myself, chatted much”—and “Free”—a one-line poem that reads “Inborn Tonal Memory.” Splashed across the book are the sort of musically punctuated, reverberating and quick lines that distinctly mark the colorful intricate lyricism of Notley’s work in the 1970s. The bright assortedness of a poem like “Poker Hand,” for example, feels like a textual equivalent of the collages Notley had begun making in the early ‘70s and also anticipates the condensed syllabic melodies of When I Was Alive (Vehicle Editions, 1980). The first couplet in “Poker Hand” is a wild neon flag of sounds: “Antediluvian bang in arched fur willful & exploded pussy / How brief you are how on how quick to validate tail.” Those are fun, tightly packed sounds, all leading to the wildly charming last line “Who taught you such verse & succour such pap,” which in the context of Notley’s pregnancy, scans as a line rhetorically interrogating the limited (or nonexistent) sources for a mother’s ability to write about the need for help (“succour”) and the bodily transformations of nurturing (the nipple-like “pap”). “I fear oblivion loss and destruction of works,” Notley says in a letter to Bill Berkson, the publisher of Big Sky, in response to his question about sending her more copies of Phoebe Light, “and feel like hoarding my books etc crazy pregnant lady, plus all imaginary people I’m gonna want to give them to.” There’s a sense of being unsure of an audience for her work, or a concern that as a young woman and mother, her poetry—and ability to be a poet at all being the person she was—would be marginalized. The attention to pain and vision that runs throughout the poems in Phoebe Light—concerns that are paramount across Notley’s work—reverberate with these concerns about what it means to be a woman and mother writing poems with no lineage, no line, no tradition to turn to. More than other poets, it’s actually actresses like Lauren Becall and Vivien Leigh who appear in these poems, a testament to Notley’s cultural wit in positioning these “stars” as a lineage for herself to inherit and subvert. As she writes in “Dear Dark Continent,” “but I’ve ostensibly chosen / my, a, family / so early! so early!” and what a family or lineage is—these people? this list of words?—is a central question in this book.

Screen Shot 2018-10-22 at 1.12.43 PM.png

“To My Father” approaches this most directly in Phoebe Light, a poem that begins by acknowledging the speaker’s failed attempts to impart the most central parts of her self and life to her father: “I’ve meant to tell you many things about my life, / & every time the moment has conquered me.” What follows is an incredible self-portrait of grief and uncertainty free of images, anecdotes, and metaphors that directly and musically undoes the genre of the confession poem (and exceeds the confessional poem). ”The centre of me / is always & eternally / a terrible pain— / a curious wild pain—a searching / beyond what the world contains, something / transfigured & infinite—I don’t find it, / I don’t think it is to be found.” I love this so much, and read it, in part, as a way to begin to describe the trajectories of Notley’s poetry and thinking in the nearly half-century since this poem was published, especially “I don’t find it, / I don’t think it is to be found,” which seems to be as much about the self as about a poetry, a style, a voice, therefore requiring, as the poem concludes, a lifetime “of gentleness & cruelty & work.” This trifecta of labor and feeling is echoed in the poem “Frozen Dance, Southampton,” which suggests a process of composing “[t]hrough mirth insight collision,” a collage-like process that binds the physical, intellectual, and emotional while embracing both “rage” and “wild despair.” Phoebe Light is full of Notley “saying / an intricacy,” as the poem “Early Works” describes, showing an already fiercely potent orchestral-like sound in her poems.

Or take the poem “Getting to Sleep, Chicago,” with its opening into a soft portrait of a winter night alone in Chicago as a young mother. Initiated by the titles of two books that Notley was likely reading—Raymond Chandler’s Trouble is My Business and C.P. Snow’s Last Things—the poem sways into sonorous lists and accumulations of seemingly ephemeral facts like “Pearls are protective secretionary bodies” that, like mother and baby, indicate a preoccupation with the nature of care between bodies. Written during Notley and Berrigan’s first stint in Chicago at their apartment at 911 W. Diversey right next to Diversey train station—”the comforting El rumble”—while Berrigan—”el marido,” her husband—”he’s away,” the poem tracks the winding down of a day and a honing of inward attention to a scene of intense care and, as the last line suggests, a kind of reciprocal worship. I love that alcohol and jewels are the image-occasions for such intimacy and care, and to read the mid-poem lists out loud is an incredible recognition of Notley’s precise, resonate ear for music—there’s a world and a life built in those lists alone.

I also love the title Phoebe Light, perhaps a reference to Phoebe MacAdams, the wife of poet Lewis MacAdams, who Notley had recently met on a visit in Bolinas. But aside from the named reference, Phoebe Light becomes to me a phrase about insistence and refusal for a poet writing into her world. What is poetry? I hear Notley asking, and responding in “Equinox Time,” “to burn fur / drown velvet.” Whatever your ideas are, Notley insists, “No, let me change your mind.” PennSound hosts a 1971 recording of Notley reading from 165 Meeting House Lane and the poems that become Phoebe Light in Bolinas with Joanne Kyger, and it’s great to be able to listen to such an early reading by Notley, who was 26 years old at the time. A poem in Phoebe Light, “We Arrived & What We Did,” also appears in Notley’s MFA thesis from Iowa, showing the gathering of her process from even earlier, in 1969, and the value of some of her earliest work as a poet (as she describes in “As Good as Anything” in Mysteries of Small Houses). And even here, Notley’s attention to trance, dreams, visions, and the voices that are available and congregating in those spaces is vivid. “Everyone else is here / waiting to be in my dream,” she writes in “Bedtime Dawn,” and though these poems are difficult to find it’s important to note how completely they are part of the dream of Notley’s lifework. It’s worth asking what else we can learn about Notley’s epic, visionary work of the last 25 years by returning to books like Phoebe Light, and it’s also worthwhile to come back to the books that have been out-of-print to see how a poetry was forming and already, full of light, insisting. “No, let me change your mind.”

 Postcard from Notley to Berkson after seeing the Alex Katz cover images for  Phoebe Light . Courtesy of the University of Connecticut Special Collections.

Postcard from Notley to Berkson after seeing the Alex Katz cover images for Phoebe Light. Courtesy of the University of Connecticut Special Collections.

What study is about: On "What is Poetry? (Just Kidding, I Know You Know): Interviews from The Poetry Project Newsletter (1983-2009)"

The following review first appeared in The Georgia Review Spring 2018, Volume LXXII, Number 1.

 Wave Books, edited by Anselm Berrigan

Wave Books, edited by Anselm Berrigan

As an archive of over a quarter century of artists speaking together, What is Poetry? (Just Kidding, I Know You Know) is a successful embodiment of the generative talk and surprising lineages that have defined the Poetry Project since its establishment in the 1960s. Even the book’s interrogative, doubly-animated title, lifted from a questionnaire by Charles North that begins the collection, marks the performative, independent, and witty consciousness of the Project itself—as an arts institution on the border of institutions, run by poets, that’s been home to fifty years of fierce, cherished conversational momentum. As the title suggests, it’s not really what “you know” but that you and I are here to share an inquisitiveness, to exchange a little of the question’s serious shapeliness.

That is, the question “What is poetry?” is only asked half-jokingly until it isn’t. Readers familiar with The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery will recognize how and why asking what poetry is (or what a Poetry Project is) might be necessary to the poets who populate it, and The Poetry Project Newsletter has helped articulate the feeling and thinking fabrics of the space. With 251 issues, the newsletter is a long social song to which the Project’s overlapping aesthetic, political, and cross-generational communities all contribute by echoing off one another. Among more monolithic or short-lived arts institutions, rarely have any been associated for so long with so many aesthetic formations that, as editor Anselm Berrigan notes, “are variously highlighted, fleshed out, made ambiguous, undermined, and otherwise reformed in the interviews found herein.” Like the Project itself, What is Poetry? is a record of oscillating, idiosyncratic correspondences rather than a monument to a cohesive aesthetic center.

As a happy result, this book is no anthology. No conversation quite settles. There are disagreements, digressions, problems, and leaps forward. This multiplicity makes the 440-page collection of interviews a good book, a good place to gather.

Featuring conversations with poets and artists as various and luminously idiosyncratic as Alice Notley, Fred Moten, Ed Sanders, and Renee Gladman, whose interviews are conducted by a range of young(er) writers—many of whom are now aesthetic leaders in their own right— such as Lisa Jarnot, Magdalena Zurawski, and erica kaufman, the collection emphasizes that cross-generational voices are always already happening together. But this togetherness is a sign of oscillation rather than cohesion. The interviews stick together because they all emerged intended for The Poetry Project Newsletter, though their movements with and against one another produce new scenes and ideas entirely, evidence of Berrigan’s astute editorial positionings.

Consider the opening three pieces in the book. The first is a playful questionnaire by Charles North that juggles the interview as a social and aesthetic form whose initial question “Why are we doing this?” echoes the book’s title as a refusal of assumptions and expectations. Following North’s playful self-reflexivity is an interview with artist Red Grooms by poet Anne Waldman that is punctuated with pronouncements such as “The ocean to me looks very nineteenth century. It was probably painted best in that century.” Next is an interview with translator Paul Schmidt by Tim Dlugos in which translation becomes more about enmeshing your thinking in a poet’s work than executing a translation with precision and clarity. As Schmidt says, “Your responsibility is to transform it.” A reader can find, or at least sense, an answer to “What is poetry?” in this sequence of collaborative, cross-genre voices where poets, prose writers, artists, translators, filmmakers, activists, musicians, scholars, and every collaged, wayward combination of these practices settle together in the space of the book. Everyone is furiously interested in what everyone else is doing, and this active participation in and attention to other artists’ work and thinking acts as a sub-narrative across What is Poetry?—the trace of an interdisciplinary aesthetic imagination that the programming at The Poetry Project continues to embody.

And really, it’s rare to get in one tome so much varied talk about innovative contemporary poetry. The only recent comparison I can make is to Andy Fitch’s Sixty Morning Talks (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014), a collection of 2012 interviews that produce a snapshot of innovative poetry practices that year via Fitch’s sharp, generous conversations. The comparison doesn’t constitute a model, though, because What is Poetry? not only chronicles the histories and personalities that have sustained the Project but also reinterrogates those trajectories, leaving them up in the air and newly able to be traced by the poets who arrive next. As if to interrogate why such a collection might be assembled in the first place, North’s questionnaire asks, “The question is, to what extent does commenting on a poetry scene produce that scene which, until that point, didn’t quite exist?” If these interviews are a site of production, a section of the news for a community always being made new, they are also an invitation to come next, to mix up and get mixed up in another lineage without cementing a trajectory or submitting to the social and historical demands of the scene. “I think everybody must already know this,” says Bernadette Mayer in a 1992 interview, “—I hope they do—that one person can write in many different ways.” The same flexibility applies to the Project itself, which is an institution and a historical center with a lineage of publications and, more important, people—the poets themselves speaking “on this high frequency,” as Kenneth Koch describes it, all of whom have been thriving, arguing, living (and sometimes dying), performing, and writing for over half a century.

Perspectives on community and lineage permeate these interviews. Asked about learning from such a seemingly disparate array of writers, the great Lorenzo Thomas offers a reply that describes an ethos of the Project itself: “Everybody was very much interested in knowing who came before us regardless of what their nationality or race might have been, though we might have been more interested in some people than others, individually. But that was the thing, we wanted to know who came before us. What, if anything, did we have in common in terms of the situations that we faced and the situations they faced, which is, I think, what study is about.”

It wouldn’t take much to convince me that “what study is about” is as good an answer as any to “what is poetry?” if answers are what one is looking for. Thomas’s description of studying is of a shared yet idiosyncratic looking around and falling into, an inquiry into common feeling and recurring confrontation—studying as ethics and politics, which is to say, a poetics. I’m buoyed by interviews like this one with Thomas, which apart from this collection would have taken a trip to a university special collections or unofficial residency in The Poetry Project offices to read. The original newsletters—often fragile, ephemeral documents—are housed now in this thick, perfect bound shed of a book, with a different historical light on them. I’m wondering where else we might find this many hit singles framed together that’s more than just a best of, as this book is. There’s a rough, critical pleasure in the accumulation across these conversations, one in which the reader is able to exist on both sides of each interview, speaking and listening. As Waldman says in conversation with Marcella Durand, “I remember Edwin Denby saying that St. Mark’s cultivated an exquisite ear for poetry. People learned how to LISTEN there.” Building on Thomas, listening also seems to be what study is about – personal, radical, and made of voices.

As the Project and Newsletter continue to stage a variety of overlapping contemporary communities of artists, the ongoing heritage of the Project also continues to garner scholarly interest and editorial projects that collect and frame the work of the communities and artists that grew in and through organizations like the Church. Those familiar with the Lost and Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative will find What is Poetry? to be an expanded companion to that invaluable archival pamphlet series, cousin to a growing list of projects and narratives that document the poetry and poetics of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, including Out of This World: An Anthology of the St. Marks Poetry Project 1966-1991 edited by Waldman, All Poets Welcome: The Lower East Side Poetry Scene in the 1960s by Daniel Kane (whose interviews with Koch and Larry Fagin appear in What is Poetry?), and St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street by Ada Calhoun. It is exciting that Wave Books, the publisher of What is Poetry?, will continue this necessary archival and historical work with its new Interview book series, the first of which, There You Are: Interviews, Journals, and Ephemera, edited by Cedar Sigo, traces the life, work, and legacy of Joanne Kyger. One can imagine other books similar to What is Poetry? about Woodland Pattern, for example, or the Poetry Center at San Francisco State University, whose rich histories would benefit from such a project by a contemporary poetry press like Wave. For now, What is Poetry?, with its smart, chatty, and ongoing exchanges, furnishes us a chance to look back at a quarter century of work, attitude, and vision in The Poetry Project Newsletter, and to generate future conversations with as much urgency and devotion as the ones collected therein. As Thomas says, “I don’t think attention to the past destroys the poet’s ability to say something new, or to be innovative.” It’s old news, but What is Poetry? is all new.

Crystal Set #18: Language by Jack Spicer (White Rabbit Press, 1965)

Language by Jack Spicer (White Rabbit, 1965; second printing 1970). Offset, 66 pages, "Designed and printed at White Rabbit by Graham Mackintosh - June 10, 1965." This copy from the second printing. [Cited page numbers for Spicer poems refer to My Vocabulary Did This To Me.]

54603424217__5FAB7542-F63E-4066-9BB8-82FE4A8CE6B8.JPG

Colored by love and judgment, constructed through a series of unmoored metaphors crossed with appearing-to-be-rational syntax that sheds as slight repetitions accumulate across sets of lines, built to showcase the otherworldliness of syllables simultaneously coalescing and floating off into a field of meaning constantly calling on the echo of myth, distant and funny and ragey—this is Jack Spicer’s Language. It feels like an ur-text for an entire poetics (i.e., Language), or a way to consider disobeying how a book functions, which is what nearly each of Spicer’s books seem to generate. Maybe because Spicer is so willing to be against something in his work, and to be so wickedly intimate and mysterious in his refusals, that reading Spicer’s poems always feels like a tremendous relief. Here is a poet showing you how to rage so sharply and strangely. I love that obscure, uncompromising music.

The entirety of Language is republished in Spicer’s Collected, My Vocabulary Did This To Me, but it’s different to read Language as its own discreet book. Not only are the poems laid out differently in the White Rabbit edition, with each poem occupying a single complete page rather than the condensed framing in the Collected, but the cover of the White Rabbit book is my favorite of any of Spicer’s covers, which are all notably just really good. Spicer’s covers aren’t merely decorative but clever, well-designed opening salvos in the critical and mystical aesthetic arguments his poems are the material of. Like the cover for Book of Magazine Verse (White Rabbit, 1966)—a facsimile copy of the then-cover of Poetry Magazine that Spicer uses as a send-up of the academic culture of respectability and professionalism tied to such publications—the cover of Language establishing a lineage for the book itself as it talks back to Spicer’s career as a professional linguist by reproducing the cover of the still-publishing flagship linguistics journal Language in which Spicer’s only professional publication was included. Daniel Katz’s description of the cover in The Poetry of Jack Spicer effectively describes the context and gesture:

“Indeed, the famous cover of Language can be seen as an assertion of this very fact: here one finds faintly reproduced a sepia green photocopy of the cover of the July-September 1952 number of the linguistics journal Language (which contained Spicer’s one publication as an academic linguist) but messily scrawled across it in a large bold red hand (probably Spicer’s own) stands the title “Language” and the name “Jack Spicer.” In truth, however, the book represents less poetry asserting its rights to language over and against those of linguistics than a different figure which the cover also suggests: the over-writing or overdetermination of a palimpsest.” (141)

You can actually read Spicer’s name on the original journal cover underneath the “ck” in the red handwritten “Jack” given as John L. Spicer, the name he would also be buried with (and which would prohibit his grave from being tracked down until just a few years ago). Spicer and his mentor David Reed’s essay “Correlation methods of comparing idioletcs in a transition area” is fascinating to skim through if only to see into the specialized interests of Spicer’s academic training (a PDF of the essay is available here). Copies of the first and second edition of Spicer’s Language are still available online from $40-$300, making it one of the still more accessible Spicer books to find, though it’s increasingly scarce. I especially love the paperclip that appears on the top center of the cover, as if casually left there while making copies of the journal cover. Katz’s description doesn’t mention this detail, though the paperclip seems to me a vivid indication of how Spicer’s relationship to publication as a fiercely local, small press-based activity within particular communities of artists anticipates the zine aesthetic of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

I’ve always read Language as a parallel text to Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, not because Berrigan’s sonnet sequence and Spicer’s serial poems are directly related (though there is meaningful resonance between their work and attitudes, as I’ve suggested elsewhere), but because of an associative attention to repetition, seriality, wit, and the range of performative rhetorical gestures that both poets make. They’re also contemporaneous publications, with The Sonnets appearing in 1964. I like how reading one against the other generates new ways to describe their respective work. Even a title like Spicer’s “Thing Music,” which is the first serial poem in the book (see Anthony McCann’s awesome 2014 book Thing Music), feels like a Berrigan-esque title, a both serious and oddly humorous phrase that ambiguously calls on a range of referents and ideas. But it is only Spicer who could, over the course of these poems, refer to his heart as being made both of “silicon” and, later, “green cheese” (a particular kind of Spicer goofiness), and write lines like these: “Meow, meow; meow, meoww / Is it really on top of a yellow giraffe / Meow, meow, meow, meow. Meow, meow” (374). I get such a kick out of these lines, their nursery rhyme-resonate silliness, the “ww” anomaly that unloosens the repetition into a conceptual space, and the idiosyncratic, musical note-like use of punctuation. Or take these lines from later in “Thing Music,” which resonate with Berrigan’s attention to simultaneity but glow through Spicer’s unexpected metaphor: “Take each past, combine it with its present. Death / Is a tooth among / Strangers” (378). This frightening, magical statement becomes an aesthetic proverb in Spicer’s mythic-aural pantheon of wicked lines. Here are a few more irreducible lines from throughout Language: “the / radio dead but alive it can connect things / Into sound” (376); “Going into hell so many times tears it / Which explains poetry” (383); “And look at stars, and books, and other people’s magic diligently” (384); “Take a step back and view the sentence” (384); “We make up a different language for poetry / And for the heart—ungrammatical” (390).

But please, can we take a moment to appreciate how incredibly well Jack Spicer uses the word “fuck” in his poems, and to acknowledge that him, Alice Notley, and Amiri Baraka, really, are the ideal models for how to curse in American poetry. These lines from the series “Morphemics” are case in point: “Us exiles dancing on the banks of their fucking river. / They asked us to sing a sad song. How / Motherfucker can I sing a sad song” (391). This is some stunning incredible vicious insistence. The double expletive here becomes the dancing and singing that refuses to emote on the proper, sanctioned level. Or there’s Spicer’s casual virtuous spite folded into daily observation, exemplified by a line like “But real unfucking rain” from “Graphemics” (398). These lines are shrines from which to devise the future of literature.

Finally, I’m thinking of these lines near the end of Language from the sixth poem in “Graphemics”: “Walden Pond / All those noxious gases rising from it in the summer” (401). For a long time I’ve thought of these lines as a description of the pastoral and transcendental toxicity of sanctioned American poetic lineage, literature, and literary spaces that Spicer railed against. But looking back at the poem recently, I remembered an article in The Guardian about a new environmental paper on the ecological health of Walden Pond that describes how Thoreau’s happy lake is quickly becoming a phosphorus-dense sludge ball because it’s full of pesticides and human pee. Having been a person who swam in Walden Pond about 10 years ago, I found this alarming, accurate, and totally appropriate to Spicer’s poem and the nature of literary tourism. The article specifically mentions the use of pesticides on the pond in the 1960s, a likely candidate for the summertime “noxious gases” caused by increased algae growth from the chemicals in the water, which is perhaps what Spicer is referring to. One imagines Spicer visiting Walden during his short tenure working at the Rare Book Room of Boston Public Library in the mid-’50s, maybe even going with Robin Blaser or John Wieners and enjoying the abject landscape they found in the heart of America’s New England literary history. Language is cut through with these moments of joyous pessimistic vitriol, devotion, and mystical intelligence, a completely Spicerian trinity of aesthetic tenets, but all of Spicer’s work deserves to be read and reread, especially for its defiance and derangement of male literary heritage and tradition. In moments of tenuous and fraught inheritance, I’m often thinking of the last lines from “A Poem For Dada Day at The Place, April, 1, 1955,”: “‘Beauty is so rare a thing,’ Pound said, / ‘So few drink at my fountain.’ / You only have the right to piss in the fountain / If you are beautiful.” It turns out Walden’s urine-saturated fate is bound up with Spicer’s Duchampian irreverence more than he could have imagined.

Multimodal art house @ tech: researching the New York School with First-Year COMPOSITION Students

 Students from "Poetry, Painting, Film, and Music in New York City" viewing   Meadow  (1997) by Alex Katz  at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Students from "Poetry, Painting, Film, and Music in New York City" viewing Meadow (1997) by Alex Katz at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

As a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology, I'm encouraged to teach first-year writing courses in rhetoric and composition that deeply engage with the content of my scholarship and research. Our program's multimodal pedagogy--in which students are consistently engaging with written, oral, visual, electronic, and nonverbal modes of communication--offers a unique opportunity to involve students, many of whom are engineers and computer scientists, in conversations about art, poetry, and aesthetics. The intertextual, collaborative, and generative experiments of New York School poets and artists are fertile ground for questions related to communication and design, and a challenging, imaginative space for students at a leading technical institute to engage in innovative research in the humanities. What would happen, I asked myself, what intersections could we discover, what new approaches to the New York School could we generate, if I turned the first-year composition classroom into a multimodal art house? This past spring semester, along with 60 first-year students, our course "Poetry, Painting, Film, and Music in New York City: 1960-Present" tested those pedagogical questions. Our immersive creative-critical look at the art of the New York School led to a series of student-made artifacts and original research projects that revitalized my sense of what's possible in a composition course.

My past experiences teaching the work of New York School artists in a writing workshop or literature course has meant utilizing mimetic processes to encourage students to both experience and experiment with the formal techniques, source materials, and cultural spaces that make up a poem. However, the course objectives in our research-based composition course--for students to develop competence in all communication modalities and to understand how effective communication balances multiple modalities--meant studying the New York School to different ends. Rather than becoming New York School-inspired artists or scholars of post-WWII American poetry (though I would argue this happened anyway), students' primary goal was to establish and refine a working aesthetic vocabulary for the art and writing they engaged with. Deployed through a range of modalities, and working both individually and collaboratively, the New York School would become a lens through which students could reflect on and critique American art practices and contemporary American culture by creating research posters, podcasts, and a host of other projects.  

Early on in the semester, I encouraged students to accumulate aesthetic vocabularies by discussing and describing the work of visual artists. Students had a hard time feeling like they could comprehend a painting, for example, by Joan Mitchell, but through comparative exercises and encouraging students to imagine more specific, idiosyncratic ways of describing visual effects, they inevitably found different methods of approaching what they saw. Before "understanding" a painting or identifying an artist's intentions, students began to consider new ways to learn simply how to look at art. They were encouraged by the incredible 2014 book New York School Painters & Poets: Neon in Daylight, written by Jenni Quilter and edited by Ali Power, which became students' foundational text as they began to explore the contours of New York School aesthetics that include, as Carter Ratcliff describes in his foreword, an "astonishing array of verbal-visual hybrids." Bill Berkson's introductory question, "In collaborative works by poets and painters together, does the verbal support the visual, or does the eye go first and most hungrily to the words that are in or of the image?" was exactly the sort of inquiry into multimodal communication that our course needed. Students tested their ability to translate their attentive looking into an aesthetic vocabulary by, for example, articulating the aesthetic and formal differences between thematically similar paintings by Jane Freilicher and Alex Katz, then utilizing that conversation to describe alignments and divergences between groups of poems by Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, and John Ashbery. Suddenly, what students admitted had at first looked like traditional landscape paintings became ways of approaching talking about the intricate challenges of avant-garde poems: the blurring of depths and mysterious invitation to narrative in the Freilicher painting began to resonate with Schuyler's "Freely Espousing"; the almost-cartoonish flatness and overwhelming surface of the Katz lithograph reflected the off-kilter buoyancy of Koch's "To You." The more they looked and read, the more students began to exchange received language like "random," "confusing," and "chaotic" for generative descriptors like "textured," "overexposed," and "composite." Using a course-specific hashtag, I would tweet about our class discussions to encourage students to return to the images and ideas we'd talked about in class. I wanted students not only to consider how course content changed when they interacted with it on social media but to also be aware of my professional presence in a larger contemporary conversation about the New York School. I wanted them to be considering the public facing future of their own research and how our in-class conversations interacted with others' ongoing scholarly work.

Screen Shot 2018-06-30 at 2.55.56 PM.png

Rather than narrativize the whole of the semester, I'd like to take the opportunity to feature some of the marvelous work my students produced throughout this class, much of which was influenced by our class visit to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and benefited from student's original archival research at Emory University's Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. A few of the projects I don't have room to feature here include some wildly creative work: the creation of sheets of Roy Lichtenstein stickers to blanket the campus with iconic pop art, a constructed 3-D model of a George Schneeman gallery exhibit in miniature, an app that applies an Andy Warhol-portrait over your own face in a selfie, broadsides of Bernadette Mayer poems with original artwork, manuscripts of Selected Interviews for artists like Lorenzo Thomas, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Anselm Berrigan, a data visualization project on John Cage's "49 Waltzes For the Five Boroughs," a "new" issue of Alice Notley's 1970s-era mimeograph magazine Chicago, a Jasper Johns-inspired fashion look book, and a website dedicated to cataloging all of Joe Brainard's book and magazine covers. A detailed portfolio of student work can be found here at my website, which includes links to the complete course syllabus, individual artifact assignment sheets, and a sample of students' reflections on their work. In addition to personally adoring these projects, these examples showcase the range of potential deliverables students can generate when instructors are encouraged to merge their pedagogy and scholarship in innovative environments. My own contribution to this symposium--a digital publishing project that makes available all of the issues of the magazines edited and published by Alice Notley--is a direct result of working with my students on their own unique projects.

Artifact 1_Poster.png

1. "Storytelling 101: The Effects of Linear vs. Non-Linear Chronology": This poetry research poster created by Angelica Weaver and Sultan Sayedzada for Artifact #1 explores how non-chronological time operates as a formal and thematic principle in The Sonnets by Ted Berrigan and Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles. The circular visualizations on the left side of the poster present how names, phrases, and references to time repeat and vary over the course of Berrigan's iconic sonnet sequence. Their translation of book's repetitions into such striking visual representations, especially in Figure 3, allow us to actually see the radical intertextuality and dense, echoing patterns that make The Sonnets so haunting and memorable. The use of the painting by Abstract Expressionist William Gambini provides a surprising visual equivalent to their representations of time in The Sonnets while also reminding us of Berrigan's deep aesthetic affiliation with visual art. The visualization on the left tracks time and chronology, and the relationships between themes such as sexuality and identity, in Myles's novel Chelsea Girls, displaying the effects of Myles's non-chronological ordering of the chapters. As the students describe, "When read horizontally, the events are in chronological order, and when read vertically, the events are in the same order as the novel. The colored lines represent different themes that trace through the novel.” Angelica's description of their project in her end-of-the-semester reflection mirrors many first-time reader's relationships with the texts: "While reading Ted Berrigan's The Sonnets, I constantly found myself dumbfounded and confused, and I was known amongst my peers to be the one who could actually understand poetry. To me, the first time, it was a convoluted mess of repeating lines, but I found myself constantly trying to trace back through to find where I had seen those lines before. I was curious to see if I put together all poems with the repeated lines, then maybe it would make sense. Reading Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles was no different; however, within their stories, it is possible to rearrange the stories based off of keywords that depict setting rather than specific repeating lines. My partner Sultan and I worked to create a visual representation of the connections."

Screen Shot 2018-06-30 at 7.04.21 PM.png

2. "The Podcast That Never Sleeps: George Schneeman": This collaborative podcast by Carlos Sabater, Christopher Reny, Antoine Paletta, and Sriharsha Singham was produced for Artifact #2. Based on our conversations about New York-based visual artists, students worked in groups to produce podcasts that investigate a single work of art. Created in the style of The Lonely Palette, a podcast by Tamar Avishai that seeks to make art history accessible to the masses, this group chose to research the Second Generation New York School artist George Schneeman and his collage "Pipe Dream 2" (1986). Their conversation is well-organized, easy to listen to, full of subtle conversational techniques that recreate a natural progression of thought and make use of the podcast's affordances, supported with multiple forms of evidence, cleverly conceptualized around Christopher's performative expertise, and elegantly edited with effective transitions and music. I really learned more about Schneeman's work through their discussion of this particular collage. The progression of the conversation into representations of gender is especially compelling, but they also make an important subtle turn to suggest that while this reading is vital you can also see the collage more literally as this self-reflexive artifact. Their analysis is full of complexity and nuance. I think Schneeman would have been a little baffled and wildly happy to hear his work talked about so well in a podcast. This is a meaningful contribution to the scholarly study of Schneeman's work.

Screen Shot 2018-06-30 at 6.53.43 PM.png

3. "Frank O'Hara: A Musical Analysis": This website created by Kaitlyn Mote for Artifact #3, the individual research project into a New York artist, is an extraordinary example of a student's ability to take one of their own passions--Kaitlyn told me about her experience playing classical music in high school--applied to researching the New York School. When I mentioned to her that O'Hara had intended to be a pianist before committing to his work as a poet and curator, she took off into her research. This informative, immersive website contains a bounty of information, all of which can be read while listening to the only extant recording of O'Hara playing the piano or by choosing from Kaitlyn's original seven-song playlist of O'Hara-inspired songs. The five main blog entries--"Frank O'Hara's Musical Background," "Frank O'Hara and Morton Feldman," "Allusions to Musicians in Frank O'Hara's Poetry," "Musicality in Frank O'Hara's Poetry," and "O'Hara's Influence on Modern Day Music"--are well-written and engagingly illustrated with relevant multimodal content. Click on the "Provided Resources" tab to find images of the complete text of Four Dialogues for Two Voices and Two Pianos by Ned Rorem with words by Frank O'Hara (and a wonderful cover by Joe Brainard), as well as a useful transcription of O'Hara's essay, "New Directions in Music: Morton Feldman." Kaitlyn utilized the archival collections at Emory’s Rose Library for her project. As she wrote in her reflection, “During my research, I also had the opportunity to visit the Rose Library at Emory University, which was an incredible experience that I hope every Georgia Tech student will experience at some point during their time in college.”

Screen Shot 2018-06-30 at 7.15.46 PM.png

4. These trading cards--one series based on The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll and the other a series of paintings by Fairfield Porter--were created by Ben Student and Alec Pfeffer, accordingly, for Artifact #3. Ben's work for the Georgia Tech basketball team made this his project a no-brainer, and he took on reading The Basketball Diaries and researched Carroll as a way to find out the relationships between the New York School and sports. The featured card is one of three well-designed cards of Carroll that fully utilize the visual markers and design features of traditional sports trading cards. The "New York School Sports" website that Ben's friend Leo Ricci made for Artifact #3, another sports fan, wonderfully complements Ben's cards, showcasing the statistical data and ephemera of the two baseball games narrated in the books Yo-Yo's With Money and Beaned in Boston by Ted Berrigan and Harris Schiff, as well as a collection of basketball cards for all the players mentioned in Anne Waldman and Bernadette Mayer's collaborative The Basketball Article. Alec's Fairfield Porter cards also utilize the visual and textual affordances of the trading card format, resulting in a 13-card series that serves as an educational introduction to Porter's aesthetic and relationship to the poets of the New York School.

Screen Shot 2018-06-30 at 7.46.02 PM.png

5. Both of these documentary videos, the first on the intersections of the Black Arts Movement and hip hop (created by Cameron Davis) and the second an editing of available and rare footage of Ana Mendieta provided to the student courtesy of Mendieta's family (created by Angelik Laboy), trace the intersections of race, identity, nationality, and aesthetics beyond the academically and culturally sanctioned (and mostly white) New York School artists. Both of these projects began in our class discussions of Amiri Baraka's Dutchman and Simone White's Of Being Dispersed. Angelik describes her project on Mendieta as an experience in learning to trust her own bravery as a documentary film maker and artist, reflecting on how "After examining all of her films, my interest sparked to explore the means in which she explored dislocation, reconnection, and belonging....With her work as an influence, the last artifact was created as an homage to her and aesthetically representative of her style. This particular project served [to allow me to] trust my creative side infused with investigative skills."

IMG_8982.JPG

At the end of the semester, students from all of the three course sections came together for a collective New York Research Showcase, an informal conference-style display of their individual final artifacts. During the showcase, students gathered in one corner for an impromptu poetry reading, reciting work by Notley, Baraka, and even The Migos. More pictures from the student showcase, which include more images of the wonderful student work I haven't been able to discuss, is available to view on Flickr

Bobbie Louise Hawkins at the Ted Berrigan Memorial Reading

DSC00128.jpg

Bobbie Louise Hawkins passed away earlier this month. Her obituary in The New York Times quotes Anne Waldman saying, "Bobbie Louise Hawkins, story teller and monologuist and performer with extraordinary wit and timing, leaves a legacy of written work to be explored, performed and appreciated by a wide audience." Married to Robert Creeley for 18 years, Hawkins describes their relationship--challenging and generative--as a series of her own refusals of Creeley's pronounced limitations on her work as a woman and as his wife.

"When Bob and I were first together, he had three things he would say,” Ms Hawkins said. “One of them was ‘I’ll never live in a house with a woman who writes.’ One of them was ‘Everybody’s wife wants to be a writer.’ And one of them was ‘If you had been going to be a writer, you would have been one by now.’ That pretty much put the cap on it. I was too married, too old and too late, but he was wrong."

She added: “I think a part of what attracted Bob to me was competences I had within myself, but it was as if once I was within his purview, those competences were only to be used for his needs, in the space where we lived, and not as though they were my own.”

“What I was really fighting for wasn’t the right to be some kind of brilliant writer,” she said. “I was fighting for the right to write badly until it got better."

fuck-you-sketch.jpg

I appreciate Hawkins's irreducibility, humor, and presence, embodied in this great "Fuck you" sketch (from her website), and carried throughout the hours of recorded class sessions and readings at Naropa, available via the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics Audio Archive.

Hawkins and Creeley were both friends of Ted Berrigan, whose time together in Bolinas is documented in Joe Brainard's Bolinas Journal (Big Sky, 1971), including Brainard's introduction to a reading by Hawkins and Joanne Kyger. Twelve years later, after Berrigan's death, Hawkins would read at his memorial reading at The Poetry Project on November 15, 1983, which would have been Berrigan's 49th birthday. I recently acquired a partial recording of the event via the Pacifica Radio Archive. Hawkins's life and work will hopefully soon be memorialized with an event in her honor at the Project, and with her death it seems appropriate to share Hawkins's contribution to Berrigan's own memorial. 

Including contributions from Clark Coolidge, Robert Duncan, Carl Rakosi, Philip Whalen, and many others, the memorial reading is a spirited tribute to Berrigan's presence as an unshakeable force in American poetry. Hawkins's contribution, in which she reads Berrigan's poems "Ann Arbor Song" and "Last Poem," is one of the funniest and most touching. She refers to a group reading of poems by Walt Whitman during the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Festival, noting how remarkable it was that each Whitman poem, performed by poets like Denise Levertov and Charles Olson with such distinct voices, immediately came to sound like their own poems. Hawkins then reflects: "The one thing, of course, that we're all here actually honoring that's markedly not here, time and again, is Ted's personal voice, which we all adored. And that fact of his voice investing with his own personal delight in them was a delight to us." Her readings of "Ann Arbor Song" and "Last Poem" are wonderfully funny, and you can feel the room's mood changing under Hawkins's voice, colored by her distinctly subtle, charming West Texas accent. 

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.

54601726533__C340BD6A-3DE5-4DA2-A46A-52E224143AAB.JPG

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.
CONS_9_7_17 26.jpg
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.
54601729268__BF0028FA-99F9-446C-8E04-3486D6C7E213.JPG

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.

Screen Shot 2018-04-21 at 3.17.48 PM.png

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.

54601731170__F5452BC3-CE12-4477-96BB-9A5D50C82D29.JPG

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.

54523457266__842C1CE9-4D77-43C5-9C25-8F26E87CD70D.JPG.jpeg

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." 

54584247994__B1A74D6E-517E-46FF-AC6F-48211E8F7EB6.JPG

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.
54523459503__CF32B476-97AD-4F90-AF16-EE07E39C45F3.JPG.jpeg

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.

IMG_3948.JPG.jpeg
IMG_3951.JPG.jpeg

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."

IMG_3953.JPG.jpeg
IMG_3955.JPG.jpeg

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.

IMG_3952.JPG.jpeg
IMG_3949.JPG.jpeg
 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)

Elmslie Circus Nerves 1.JPG

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.

54362686628__673B633F-3E42-4B96-9453-3B7B504E803B.JPG

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." 

Elmslie Brainard Portrait from Power Plant Poems 1967.png

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

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 12.40.04 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 12.39.40 PM.png

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. 

Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 11.54.30 AM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 11.59.27 AM.png

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"

Weigel 1.png
Weigel 2.png

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

AN-LIVE-COVER02-600x600.jpg

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.