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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Berrigan wearing a shirt featuring a George Schneeman print

Berrigan wearing a shirt featuring a George Schneeman print

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

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

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

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

GEORGE SCHNEEMAN AT HOLLY SOLOMON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                            -- Ted Berrigan

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Nick: And in Waltzing Matilda.

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

***

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

***

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

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

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."

THE POLLOCK STREETS: TED BERRIGAN’S ART WRITING

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

From Part 1:

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

From Part 2:

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

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

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

 Alex Katz, "Ted Berrigan," 1967

Alex Katz, "Ted Berrigan," 1967