“Thinking with my Hands” in the Archive: Second Generation New York School Gems

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Note: This essay was originally published on the University of Connecticut’s Archives and Special Collections Blog on January 14, 2019.

In my first-year writing course during the Fall 2018 at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, my students are reading books by Second Generation New York School poets to critique and creatively reimagine concepts of youth, coming-of-age narratives, and the overlap between do-it-yourself and avant-garde aesthetics. We had already read Joe Brainard’s I Remember and Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, two versions of youth, memory, and selfhood constructed by male poets of the New York School, and were beginning to read Alice Notley’s Mysteries of Small Houses (1998) to extend this intertextual conversation about youth through the perspective of a female poet. While re-reading Mysteries, a book of autobiographical poems that tracks Notley’s “I” through the prismatic complexities of life and writing, I returned to her poem “Waveland (Back in Chicago)” in which Notley, challenged by the responsibilities and strictures of living inside concepts like motherhood and femininity in the mid-’70s, describes her progress of collage-making, a practice Notley continues to be devoted to.

Frozen collection of world—this is “art” I don’t

write much poetry;

I’m thinking with my hands—a ploy against fear—

I have a pile of garbage on the floor

The poem then catalogs a series of collages with titles like “WATERMASTER” and “DEFIES YOU THE RHYTHMIC FRAME,” and also describes a collage composed of “a photo of a stripper I’ve named / Barney surrounded by cutout words she / dances to poetry.” Reading these lines, I remembered that I had actually just seen this very collage in Notley’s papers at the University of Connecticut. Among about a dozen collages by Notley, there was Barney herself, headless, cape trailing behind her, walking across a fragment of moon. After discussing this poem in class, I was able to show my students the collage to talk about how seeing an example of Notley’s visual art helped us think about her critiques of femininity, motherhood, and aesthetics. Students were surprised that I even had such an example to show them and immediately started to describe the effects of juxtaposing the idea of “2 Nursery Rhymes” paired with a nearly-nude woman, what it might mean for Notley to be a “brilliant mother” in association with the mythological feminine connotations of the moon, and how the epistolary gesture “hi Carlos Dear Henry” resonated with Berrigan’s The Sonnets, which is riddled with the salutation like “Dear Marge,” “Dear Chris,” and “Dear Ron.” Seeing Notley’s collage projected in front of them, pairing the material evidence of the poem’s description with a conversation about how the visual medium supplemented their reading of the text, students said they felt a different connection to the poem, to Notley’s work, and to our entire discussion that day.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without my recent visit to the archives at the University of Connecticut. Thanks to the generosity of a Rose and Sigmund Strochlitz Travel Grant, I spent a week in the papers of poets and artists like Notley, Ted Berrigan, Bill Berkson, and Ed Sanders, among others, including voluminous correspondence with Joe Brainard, Anne Waldman, Bernadette Mayer, Lewis Warsh, Ron Padgett, and a litany of other Second Generation New York School writers. Well-known for its Charles Olson Research Collection, the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center is also home to a wealth of materials associated with the New York School and is a necessary destination for any scholar of 20th century American poetry. And though a week of nonstop work in the archive allowed me to read and assess a lot of material, the sheer amount of New York School material stored at UConn, much of which has only barely begun to be utilized by scholars, meant that I was inevitably rushing through stacks of papers, quickly unfolding and refolding letters, swiftly scanning folder titles, and scratching nearly incomprehensible notes, in a frenzied, focused attempt to see and catalog as much as possible before getting back on the plane to Atlanta. All the time in the archive, like Notley’s description of collage-making in Mysteries, I’m “thinking with my hands” as I arrange, photograph, and order material in “a ploy against [the] fear” of overlooking or not knowing the full extent of what’s present in the archive. Every piece of material in the archive, like in Notley’s collage, is necessary and meaningful. This is how “a pile of garbage” becomes both art and scholarship. Starting with what you touch, a life and intelligence are animated.

Notley wasn’t the only poet whose visual artwork is held at the University of Connecticut. Take this incredible poster-size collage “Blues Bombard” (1965) by Ron Padgett with the poet’s thick, elegant cursive painted over sliced fragments of sheet music that frame a photo booth portrait of Padgett, face half-obscured, cool, and mysterious. It’s rare to find visual artwork by Padgett that isn’t a collaboration with friends like Brainard or George Schneeman, and this piece is particularly astounding both for its size and the quick, pleasing, and humorous visual narrative that follows from the newspaper clipping-title, down across the rhyming and chiding main text ”more than likely this stinks greatly,” the arrows and question marks that logically and quizzically suggest a set of correspondences, the appearance of the artist mid-gesture, and the small, humorous, non sequitur conclusion “a hole in one. THE END.” It’s a lovely piece, and entirely Padgett in its cartoonish wit and simplicity.

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I was also interested to work in Ed Sanders’s papers at UConn, which includes a wealth of material from the Peace Eye Bookstore, the infamous “secret location on the lower east side” where Sanders’s mimeograph magazine Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts was published from 1962-65 until the store was raided by the NYPD on obscenity charges. Incredibly enough, the collection includes both a handwritten note from 1964 instructing Sanders to call an FBI agent and Sanders’s January 1965 mugshot following his arrest. After Sanders defeated the charges against him, Peace Eye temporarily reopened in 1967 with a Fuck You-style gala event auctioning off “literary relics & ejeculata from the culture of the Lower East Side.” The collection includes the handwritten notecards Sanders used to identify the various items for sale in the auction, like an “iron used by rising young poets to iron the buns of W.H. Auden during the years 1952-1966,” “Allen Ginsberg’s Cold Cream Jars,” and a letter from Marianne Moore to Sanders in response to receiving a copy of Fuck You in the mail. It’s especially incredible to have copies of the material actually confiscated by the NYPD in the raid of the bookstore with the police evidence identification slips still attached, like a copy of a Joe Brainard drawing described by police as “Blue colored Headless Superman drawing with private parts exposed.”

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Among collages and obscenity charges, the New York School material at UConn also runs parallel to and benefits from the archive’s already well-known collections of Frank O’Hara and Charles Olson papers. The resonance of those collections are embodied in two postcards; one from Frank O’Hara to Ted Berrigan and another from Berrigan to Charles Olson. Much can be made of the micro-lineage threads of the New American poetry and New York School that run through these three poets. Not only are Olson and O’Hara canonical energies within Berrigan’s The Sonnets, but Berrigan’s self-described “rookie of the year” arrival in American poetry occurred at the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference, over which Olson’s presence loomed large, and O’Hara’s work and entire aesthetic field had been a guide for Berrigan on how to live as a young poet. What’s great about the 1962 postcard from O’Hara to Berrigan is that it offers a reversal on the standard hierarchical narratives of literary tradition. Here, it’s O’Hara praising Berrigan’s poems as he invites him out for a drink and “to meet K. [Kenneth] Koch,” who would also be a New York School hero to Berrigan. Evidenced by the tape arranged on the edges of the card to harden and preserve it, Berrigan clearly treasured this correspondence from O’Hara, which due to the use of Berrigan’s full name, seems to have been their very first. One images Berrigan, then 27 years old and having just moved to New York City the year before, formally expressing his admiration for O’Hara’s poems, and this postcard is evidence of Berrigan’s devoted friendship with his interests and aesthetic sources. The August 16, 1966 postcard from Berrigan to Olson, on the other hand, reveals an already well-established and easy going correspondence with the author of The Maximus Poems and “Projective Verse,” as Berrigan, referencing the postcard’s text on the other side, writes, “Dear Charles, We’re about to beat upwind. A loon is crying tonight. Maine is full of sky,” and signs off, “Be seeing you, Ted + Sandy.” Likely having stopped in to see Olson in Gloucester, Massachusetts on the drive up to Maine with his first wife, Sandy, Berrigan is playfully following up with the elder poet only about three weeks after the death of O’Hara. Though Olson himself would die in 1970 and it’s unclear if further correspondence between the two poets exists, his “full of sky” note to Olson again shows Berrigan’s sense of intimacy with the poets whose work he respected and learned from. The archive, as it often does, is showing us how lineage, tradition, and aesthetic exchange are never abstract.

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I’m looking forward to returning to the archives at the University of Connecticut to spend more time thinking through the material traces of the poets I love and study, and to continue to utilize these important and still growing collections to illustrate the ongoing importance and value both of the New York School’s second generation gems and the pedagogical, personal, and scholarly correspondence that archives allow us to develop. “I must be making my own universe / out of discards,” Notley writes in “Waveland (Back in Chicago),” and there’s a sense of that same construction of a world in the loose, wayward ephemera of the archive. What’s most fulfilling is how the process of looking and reading in the archive is always one of presence, and often magically, of being in contact with your sources.

Independent Voices: The Digital Archive that Makes Mimeo (and More) Open Access

The Independent Voices open access digital archive is an indispensable scholarly and pedagogical resource for scholars of 20th century American poetry. Available since May 2018, the digital archive collects 15,401 issues of alternative press newspapers, magazines, and journals—amounting to over 465,000 pages—including an astounding litany of poetry magazines associated with the New American Poetry and its many afterlives. Magazines linked to the New York School include Milk Quarterly, Mag City, United Artists, Fire Exit, Un Poco Loco, Harris Review, Talisman, Mother, Strange Faeces, Blue Suede Shoes, Bombay Gin, Clown War, Personal Injury, Telephone, Unnatural Acts, 0-9, the entire run of The World from The Poetry Project, and the incredible East Village Other counter-culture newspaper of the Lower East Side. Though I’ve encountered most of these magazines—many of them mimeographed—in the holdings of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, these digitized versions—often in complete runs—offers a new kind of accessibility to these rare mimeo materials and places them in the larger context of 20th century radical print culture. Paired with encyclopedic mimeo resources like A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980 edited by Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips (and the accompanying website) and rogue digital collections like the Fuck You Press Archive at Reality Studio, Independent Voices opens the door to innovative digital humanities scholarship and pedagogy that have always seemed ideal for these complex and ephemeral visual-textual documents.

Of course it’s meaningful to have so many of these rare magazines digitized—but what exactly can we do with them in our scholarship and teaching? One thing that the digitized collection facilitates is the creation of tables of contents for full runs of the publications. For example, building a comprehensive contributor list to a magazine like The World, which was published in 58 issues from 1967 to 2002 and acts as an aesthetic and social history of the culture of The Poetry Project, gives us the ability to see short- and long-term trends, editorial shifts, frequency of contributions, and to analyze the overlaps and outliers in social and literary networks. As a Berrigan scholar, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited the “Index to the Contents of C: A Journal of Poetry site at Reality Studio. Scholarship on the New American Poetries is often full of references to important magazines like Berrigan’s C or Sanders’s Fuck You, but it is immensely challenging to know who and what was actually published in these magazines. It would take an entire day in a special collections library to index even a brief run of a mimeo magazine—and that’s without reading the actual content, and if you have access to a library with the magazine and if the library has the full run—meaning that even basic information about these publications from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s is still mostly inaccessible. Independent Voices offers an opportunity to change this situation through its advanced search function and the ease of navigation through the digitized copies. When I created Alice Notley’s Magazines: A Digital Publishing Project, compiling a complete index of contributors was the most important step next to facilitating actual access to the magazine. Now that Independent Voices has done the hard (and financially challenging) work of digitizing and applying basic metadata to the archival primary sources, scholars and students can begin to organize and analyze this wealth of material.

This is exactly what some of my Georgia Tech students did in my Spring 2019 ENGL 1102 course “Poetry, Painting, and Film in New York City: 1960-Present.” Inspired by the “Networking the New American Poetry” Digital Danowski project at Emory, first-year mathematics student Alvin Chiu used the Independent Voices complete run of The World to compile a spreadsheet of all the contributors, artists, and editors who appear in the magazine—there are 2,281 separate contributions over 58 issues (!!!)—to create this stunning data visualization of the complete contributor network for The World. As Alvin describes, “The blue nodes are issues, while the yellow nodes are people. There is an edge between them if a person contributed to that specific issue. Note that the larger the node, the more contributors it had (if it is an issue) or the more issues it contributed to (if it is a person). The largest yellow nodes are Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh, which is expected considering how much they oversaw the production of The World. The singly-connected nodes are the people that only contributed to one issue, so we see that there is a rather decent amount of regular contributors in comparison.” The visualization is interactive so that a user can click on and drag nodes to more easily identify various smaller networks within the larger history of the magazine.

Using this data, Alvin was able to note that there was a steady decline in regular contributors to The World (regular contributors being writers who were published twice or more being “regular”) over the course of the magazine’s history, suggesting an increasingly larger and more diverse network of publication and distribution across the magazine’s history. At the same time, however, Alvin found that the most frequent contributors to The World were Anne Waldman (in issues 1-20), Alice Notley (in issues 21-30 and 41-50), Bernadette Mayer (in issues 31-40), and Anselm Berrigan (in issues 51-58), revealing the female-led core and closely knit social and familial network of the Second Generation New York School that acts as a consistent aesthetic foundation for the magazine. These observations only just begin to scratch the surface of how to utilize this data. One could do a more in-depth analysis looking at the distribution of gender, race, and sexual orientation among contributors, or add additional layers of information to the data—like whether contributions are poetry, prose, translations, or other genres—to begin to see broad aesthetic and genre-based trends. Any new approach to the data is an important re-animation of the magazine and an opportunity to newly describe the legacies of the mimeograph revolution in American poetry. Needless to say, Alvin’s made a good start on this research. One can imagine an entire class of students working on similar projects, each compiling never-before-accessible contributor lists for all sorts of literary and counter-culture publications. Energized by Alvin’s work, I’m looking forward to building my own set of visualizations for contributors to Berrigan’s C and Notley’s magazines that can accompany the digitized content here on this site.

To encourage further use of Independent Voices, I’ve excerpted some interesting and surprising pages from the magazines I’ve interacted with in the archive so far—both literary magazines and alternative press publications. All of these examples are content I found for the first time using Independent Voices, like the Atlanta-based New Left newspaper The Great Speckled Bird that would be an incredible primary source collection to utilize in an ENGL 1101 or 1102 course. You can learn more about Independent Voices by following @RevealDigital on Twitter.

"The East Village Other Map" from issue 2 of   The   East Village   Other   newspaper (Nov. 1965), a geographic litany of Lower East Side aesthetic hotspots for the New York School poets: Peace Eye Bookstore, Gem Spa, Five Spot, Cedar Bar, 8th St. Bookstore, & more

"The East Village Other Map" from issue 2 of The East Village Other newspaper (Nov. 1965), a geographic litany of Lower East Side aesthetic hotspots for the New York School poets: Peace Eye Bookstore, Gem Spa, Five Spot, Cedar Bar, 8th St. Bookstore, & more

These sets of photographs of the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference by Magdalene Arndt (later Leni Sinclair, the activist and counter-culture photographer) appear in the Detroit-based mimeo magazine WORK, edited by John Sinclair, issue 2 Fall 1965.

Cover of UK-based mimeograph magazine   Strange Faeces   issue 10, 1972, guest-edited by Andrei Codrescu.

Cover of UK-based mimeograph magazine Strange Faeces issue 10, 1972, guest-edited by Andrei Codrescu.

From the alternative Atlanta newspaper   The Great Speckled Bird   ,  Vol. 1 No. 5 (May 10-23, 1968) about an April 27 anti-Vietnam “Peace Parade.”

From the alternative Atlanta newspaper The Great Speckled Bird, Vol. 1 No. 5 (May 10-23, 1968) about an April 27 anti-Vietnam “Peace Parade.”

Kevin Killian, In Memoriam (1952-2019)

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Kevin picked me up in Berkeley in Dodie’s little sedan. It must have been 9am, or earlier, after a night with friends in the city. I’d met Anne Waldman the day before at the ALA, introduced via Kevin’s quick generous framing of even the most causal acquaintance. Nick Dorsky said something to me I’ll never forget. But then I was in the car with Kevin, his dark suit jacket, tote bag. I was exhausted, woozy. Kevin was excited, friendly, asking questions, already telling stories. We were on the new Bay Bridge, my first time going across in light. We drove to Jack Spicer’s grave at Cypress Lawn where he shot me for his Tagged series, sexy and bookish. I loved it. The space was all magic, doused in a misty green and red glow through the stained glass atriums in the mausoleum where Spicer’s ashes are interred. It’s called a columbarium, which sounds like it should mean “mystical card catalog.” All the named golden lists. The enormously heavy doors and marble echoes. There are these monstrous ferns growing in pots. Am I remembering this right? It felt like being in a nineteenth century orb. The hangover made everything simultaneously more and less beautiful. In the back atrium to the left, a little over head high, the thin plaque for “John Spicer”—catacombs section F, niche 16, tier 4—the site that Kevin had only recently, finally, been able to find. Afterwards, we went to a Jamba Juice in a shopping plaza by the highway and gossiped. It was finally getting hot. On the way back he told me about the Rose Library’s recent acquisition of a collection of errant Spicer papers. Questionable provenance and protective high profile booksellers. We arranged for me to send him digitized copies of everything as soon as it was processed. Kevin was very generous about this, since he knew the papers had an uncollected handwritten poem in them, a gem to be included in a forthcoming collection of Spicer’s uncollected poems. The Spicer papers also turned out to include an uncollected John Wieners poem. Everything that Kevin helped with felt like it had this cascading good fortune and ease around it. He facilitated that magic. And of course he’d set up a reading, too, where I read a long poem called “Alyson Hannigan Ordered Me To Be Made,” which Norma Cole called “beautiful.” Kevin made that happen, too. This was all in May 2016, so I only knew Kevin for about three years—which is nowhere near as long or deeply as others—and nevertheless he was a gigantic force in my world. He always had something to offer or tell me about. In our emails I was “Nicky,” “dude,” “pal”—I love Kevin’s unironic cuteness. He once sent me his own signed copy of Elio Schneeman’s In February I Think—the last book published by Ted Berrigan’s “C” Press—just because. Earlier this year he wrote me a gloriously sassy and selfless note to commend me on my essay about Bill Berkson’s memoir at the Poetry Foundation. I can’t imagine higher praise. Kevin’s style of scholarship—obsessive, personal, devoted, collaborative, sharp, aesthetically luminous, endlessly curious—is one of my central guides for how to do this work. Nothing was ephemeral to him. He was a collector and a fan, which made him an incredibly generous scholar and editor. God, what else is there. In 2014 I taught two sections of a modern drama class almost entirely out of Kevin and David Brazil’s Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater—a delight. I wrote a series of poems called “Flowers and Money” after a poem of the same title in Kevin’s Action Kylie—”I give you money // and flowers, because I’m so happy and / because I want to—buy your // friendship, I want to be pretty / and appropriate, I want to have fallen.” Kevin and Dodie’s Christmas cards. His Amazon reviews. All the cute boys and kindnesses and flirty spirit. Our last correspondence was about Dodie’s copy of the Jack Spicer tarot deck designed by Russell Fitzgerald. One of my students was doing a project on astrology and the New York School, and Spicer’s deck was a key precedent. He graciously sent a volley of pictures—“snaps,” as he called them. “Ah, for you, anything.”

The outpouring of remembrances about Kevin have already been so bright and loving. It’s absolutely unbelievable how vital he was for so many folks for so long. My deep condolences to Dodie and everyone for whom Kevin’s life and presence was a daily, local, loving fixture. KK forever.


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Crystal Set #20: The Lily of St. Mark's by Steve Carey

The Lily of St. Mark’s by Steve Carey (“C” Press, 1978)—31 pages, side-stapled mimeograph edition of 250 copies. Printed at The Poetry Project. Cover art and interior portrait by George Schneeman.

In Alice Notley’s essay “Steve,” written as a lecture given June 19, 1998 at Naropa (digitized here) and collected in her book Coming After: Essays on Poetry, Notley describes first meeting Steve Carey in her apartment at 101 St. Mark’s Place: “He has a deep beautiful voice, from deep in a big chest. It’s the voice (I will soon find out) that all his poems ride, they’re conceived for that sound, fluid, changeable, playing…it will make up words for us, contribute permanently to our vocabulary.” “[H]is sensibility is responsive to every delicacy in words,” she writes, and this precisely the musical flexibility—mouthy jostle (to coin a Carey-esque phrase)—that permeate the poems in The Lily of St. Mark’s. I’ve coveted a copy of this book for a long time and just recently was able to get one. The bold intricacy of Schneeman’s playing card-style cover, even the title itself, which is such a quintessential late-1970s, New York School gesture—a wry and lyric gendered play that incorporates the hyper-localized geography of the Second Generation—make this book an irresistible object. It’s also the penultimate publication of Ted Berrigan’s “C” Press—which he revived in 1978 to publish Carey’s book and, finally, Elio Schneeman’s In February I Think. As Notley descirbes, “This title is after the song ‘The Lily of the West’ (sung by Joan Baez, and also and not very well by Dylan) suggesting Steve’s Westernness (he loves whitewall tires and smog and Ed Ruscha photos) and his pallor and esthetic purity) which Ted sometimes chides him for, as in Ted’s line ‘Absolute quality tells absolutely nothing’).” Carey’s recent move to New York City from the West Coast—and the quick dissolution of his marriage, as Notley describes in the above essay—maps over the song’s narrative. The allusion is as witty as it is sentimental, a warm mixture of feeling and intelligence that continues to be one of the little-discussed joys of poets such as Carey, Berrigan, Notley, and other “Second Generation” New York School writers.

A few years ago I wrote a short review of The Selected Poems of Steve Carey, edited by Edmund Berrigan (Subpress, 2009), which I’ve included at the end of this post. Everything there holds true for The Lily of St. Mark’s, but many of the poems in this book that don’t appear in the Selected are worth highlighting for their raucous, idiosyncratic swerves of phrase. This is also a way of saying that I’d like to create a record of the need for more of Carey’s poems to be easily available, and that a Collected Poems of Steve Carey would be a celebrated publication for poets and scholars interested in writers like Carey whose work has not been widely read or written about. Notley’s endorsement should be all we need. Elinor Nauen’s narrative of Carey’s last day alive—originally published in The Poetry Project Newsletter in Oct./Nov. 1989—is a strong portrait of Carey’s humor, devotions, and love. “There’ll be marigolds in my next poem,” he tells Nauen. He’d die of a heart attack the next day.

Carey’s sense of a line’s ability to whimsically bend, light up, usher in, and fizz is one of the core delights of his work. He is a genius of generating that odd-ball variation in a phrase that makes the most familiar language an unstable chemical substance. He rivals Ashbery and Koch as a list-making poet. His verbs are miraculous. His miniature collages of newly minted phrases are scenes of dramatic wit and care. His humor carries the effect of a TV-set constantly shifting between channels—voices, tones, contexts gently running together into poems that are neither sets of non sequiturs nor fixed narratives. He can make language into science fiction. And all throughout are his friends and his love for them. Carey’s work looms with spirited presence. It’s voice-y and thrilled. Its shine is its wit. It gets weird in any light. Check the poem “Wasi-Wasi” for examples of nearly all of the above.

Below is a quick inventory of incredible lines from The Lily of St. Mark’s:

“About Poetry (II)” for Keith Abbott: “But dizzy hailing worthies / I am light — I think I’m light — and toss / these options aft.”

“Folk Song”: “I have no lethal heavens, roaring plently.”; “Your plans, and sign surprise, and rout / Deep breathing, beef your weaving lean, / And cry, ‘Light! Die light! Die light!’”

“‘The Pills Aren’t Working’”: “Out—hamming fury—as I do”

“The Islands”: “To what you got to kneel beside / Female dusts will burgeon / Clutter and bind these hard hands / Where their song shall keep”

“Poem (Middle Distance)”: “creeping dream deprivation / roaring bores”

“Poem From a Line by Philip Whalen”: “Bless the all but silent sleep / conveying fabulous muddles of the kug / pictured to serve.”

“Slo-Mo” for Ted Berrigan: “as I (banking in a slow drop) / watch a dawn bump up at the far line.”

“Dread”: “Of the pave, / of the pave, / ‘Now there’s some music / I can drive to!’ // A penalty flag falls to the ground. // Slowly, I produce the knife!”

“About Poetry” for Bill Berkson: “There is herald all in tone.”; “Talking in our sleep… / The books grow bigger / And bigger. Fine books.”


From left to right: Alice Notley, Harris Schiff, Ted Berrigan, and Steve Carey at 101 St. Mark’s Place apartment. Courtesy of Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

From left to right: Alice Notley, Harris Schiff, Ted Berrigan, and Steve Carey at 101 St. Mark’s Place apartment. Courtesy of Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

Review of The Selected Poems of Steve Carey, edited by Edmund Berrigan (Subpress, 2009)—originally published in NOÖ Journal #17:

Steve Carey’s poetry is a jubilant assemblage of crystal phrases and sets, an ongoing practice in the delight and incongruity that emerges in and between uncommon lines, our living ghosts and singing voices. Carey, who died at age 43 in 1989, is associated with the fierce, joyous, trembling, visionary sounds of the Second Generation New York school poets, and his work shows an intimate overlap with the poetry of Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, Bill Berkson, Philip Whalen, and others around the Poetry Project and Naropa in the 1970s and early 80s. But what’s a generation or a school do for readers who find Carey for the first time in this Selected, the first gathering of his work in over 25 years? I came to Carey’s work through a dedicated reading of Berrigan’s poetry, a microlineage that allowed me to trace a common devotion in language and sound rather than a canonical tradition. And in these poems, which are so funny and attentive, carried so pleasurably by the weird light of a phrase like “You’re swacked” or the miraculous turning music in “Sweatless in my place / Dear, dear gate,” we swerve so much and so gently in each line that we’re made into beginners, starting again along with Carey to be readers of ourselves and our shared musics. It’s a good thing to be a beginner in these poems—it leaves us radically open, without jealousy or anxiety, dreaming. Carey is describing his own practice, and telling us a secret about music, when he writes, “In each a rhythmic adjustment is made // ‘Everyone is haunted / Watch the water.’” Both meditative and fervently busy, we’re riding each phrase to its textured next of kin. One of the most terrific things about Carey’s poems is his use of punctuation, that language within language that (re)organizes so much of a poem’s music. In poems like “Julia” and “Joe Hill,” Carey’s use of parentheses, hyphens, and quotation marks make for a lush braiding that subnarrates the movement of thinking, line by line, like Dickinson, Howe, or Notley. He, like them, is “[t]urning her face to her sources,” living in a jeweled, far, unprecious sound. Anyone familiar with the New York School will be at home in Carey’s Selected, but these poems are a long drift past categorization. Edmund Berrigan’s selection of poems, from more on-site lyric arrangements to long open field poems to Carey’s incredible list works, like the unbelievably pleasurable “The Complaint: What Am I, Some Kind Of,” gives us the most generous shapeliness for reading Carey’s work. A true “sooth-brooder,” a wayward “Thinker of something else,” Carey’s voice is still here for new readers, critically joyous, crystalline, and tender. Tra-la, tra-la.

Full PDF of The Lily of St. Mark’s: click here

Full PDF of 20 Poems: click here

Tom Carey’s Papers, the archive of Steve Carey’s brother, recently became available at Yale’s Beinecke Library.

from  The Selected Poems of Steve Carey

from The Selected Poems of Steve Carey


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It’s not every day that I have the opportunity to hop on the radio to talk about teaching the archives, let alone to curate a set list of Ted Berrigan-centric New York School-related songs, but that’s exactly what Lost in the Stacks, the research library rock’n’roll radio show at Georgia Tech’s WREK asked me to do for our episode “Teaching the Archives.” It was so fun to be able to talk about the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University and Berrigan’s poetry in such a vivid, energetic medium. Lost in the Stacks describes itself as “the original research-library rock'n'roll radio show! Broadcasting on WREK Atlanta, each show features an hour of music, interviews, and library talk united by a common theme.” It’s an incredible show with episodes about open access issues, citizen archiving, exciting original research, all things library culture, and refreshing perspectives on the work of libraries, archives, and the folks who make them run—plus great music.

It was a pleasure to talk with hosts Charlie Bennett, Public Engagement Librarian, and Wendy Hagenmaier, Digital Collections Archivist, and to be able to co-produce the episode alongside them. In our conversation, we talk about my use of archival materials from Emory’s Rose Library—particularly from the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library—in my first-year writing courses at Georgia Tech and as visiting faculty at Emory, encouraging students to do their own original research at the Rose Library, the joy of the “material oomph,” my scholarship on Ted Berrigan and Alice Notley, the New York School’s overlap with punk and rock music on the Lower East Side, and the incredible pedagogical wealth of the Danowski Library. And by the way, early in the episode I mention a student project on the band Television’s connections to the New York School of poets—the same band from which the intro/outro song of Lost in the Stacks is sampled—and that completed project, “Television: Where Punk and Poetry Meet,” which utilizes copies of the rare magazine Genesis Grasp from the Danowski Poetry Library to showcase the early aesthetic influence of the New York School on Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine—is available here.

A few quick annotations on my choices for the playlist for this episode that aren’t addressed directly in our conversation:

“Early Mornin’ Rain” by Bob Dylan: In the Early Morning Rain is the title of Ted Berrigan’s book of poems published in 1970 by Cape Goliard Press/Grossman.

“California Dreaming” by The Mamas and the Papas: In his iconic “Red Shift,” Berrigan writes at a particularly dramatic momentum-turning point in the poem “There’s a song, ‘California Dreaming,’ but no, I won’t do that.”

“People Who Died” by Jim Carroll: Carroll was a close friend of Berrigan, Notley, and many other New York School poets. Carroll’s infamous The Basketball Diaries was first published by New York School small press United Artists. “People Who Died” is also a poem by Ted Berrigan.

You can listen to the full episode of “Teaching the Archives” here.

The vinyl and music stacks at WREK’s own riotous archive.

The vinyl and music stacks at WREK’s own riotous archive.

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.


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.

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“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.]


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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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."


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


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."


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.


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

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

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

I was meeting some terrific unpublished poets, so many of them women, and though The World was publishing great works, there were those not finding a way in. I wanted to give the women writers I was finding and that outlier community a voice. At readings I would be knocked off my chair by their stunning poems that were nowhere in print. It’s so incredible to discover poems that take your breath away. I’ve always craved making things, hands on, making collages and such. So naturally I thought I could create a magazine. I wanted it to be eclectic and open to all like the telephone book. So I christened it Telephone. Almost immediately I realized I would do books too. I would call the press Telephone Books! Once I put my idea out to myself, it felt the most natural thing of all.
So I asked Anne if I could use the Gestetner mimeo machine at the Project to do a magazine.  In her typical utter generosity, she said “sure!” Of course I had no idea as to the process. Larry Fagin kindly gave me instruction on how to type a stencil:  How to Type A Stencil 101. And Tom Veitch offered to teach me how to run the massive Gestetner, add ink, load the stencils, etc. Often, after I put the boys to bed with Lauren or a neighbor watching over them, I could be found working alone upstairs in the big, dark, spooky and haunted church, the loud clunking of the Gestetner echoing as I rolled out the copies. St Marks is notorious for being haunted by Peter Stuyvesant. It’s said you can hear his wooden leg smacking the floorboards after midnight. There alone, I heard his walking many a night as I cranked the big wheel on the mimeograph machine and turned out page after stunning page of glistening wet black letters that floated on the white paper.
Tom ran off the initial issue of Telephone magazine for me. It was a magic moment when the first pages rolled off the drum. It seemed both a miracle and a magic trick that all those typed stencils were working. I had done illustrations with a stylus, holding the stencils up against a window to trace the original. They appeared fully perfect. I was astounded.

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

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

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

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


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.


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." 


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.

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.


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."


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.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                            -- Ted Berrigan

Vintage New York School Video

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

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

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

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