Friday, July 22, 2005

 

The day my piece on the PIP 5 anthology runs, what do I get in the mail but a package from Joshua Kotin, managing editor of the Chicago Review, sending me a reminder that once upon a time I also co-edited something akin to a regional anthology, a 63-page feature entitled Fifteen Young Poets of the San Francisco Bay Area, which appeared in the Summer 1970 issue of ChiRev. My partner in that project was David Melnick, during that relatively brief moment when we were both students at Berkeley.

When I first met David in 1968 – hitchhiking back to Oakland after a Harvey Bialy-David Bromige reading at the Albany Public Library then on Solano – we discovered that we both knew Iven Lourie, then the poetry editor of ChiRev. Melnick, who had studied at the University of Chicago, had been a roommate of Iven’s, whereas I’d been one of Iven’s “discoveries,” poets he’d consciously decided to promote aggressively in the review. (Some others in that group included William Hunt, Dennis Schmitz & Robin Magowan.) Melnick recruited me on the spot to join him in his attempt to bring the UC Berkeley magazine Occident into the post-avant world (where its roots could truly have been said to belong, with such prior student poets as Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer & Diane Wakoski having all been active with the journal).

As success wasn’t immediate in that campaign (we gradually had a little, but only after I’d transferred over from SF State to Berkeley), we decided to pitch the idea of a collection to The Chicago Review. I think we may have posed it as a special issue in the mode of the great second issue of the Evergreen Review. That proposal promptly hit a brick wall, but Iven had agreed to take over as the general editor for one issue before he graduated & for that issue he proposed a scaled down version, which is what we ended up editing.

When I look back with 35 years of hindsight at the list of poets we included –

D. Alexander

Harvey Bialy

David Bromige

John Gorham

Kenneth Irby

Joanne Kyger

Robin Magowan

David McAleavey

Rochelle Nameroff

David Perry

Anthony Shonwald

George Stanley

Julia Vinograd

Paul Xavier

Al Young

– my immediate thought is that we didn’t do half bad. Al Young is California’s Poet Laureate today & several others – Bromige, Irby, Kyger, Stanley – have achieved some measure of recognition. David McAleavey just published the biggest & most ambitious book of his career, Robin Magowan has recent books out that are well worth reading & Julia Vinograd is something of a Berkeley institution, “the bubble lady” who wanders the streets selling her chapbooks of verse.

D. Alexander died far too young, Harvey Bialy went off to Africa & appears to have only recently gotten back into being a visible presence in print. Shelley Nameroff – my wife at the time – published one excellent book with Ithaca House (the editor there was McAleavey, who proved to be an early force in bringing the language poets into print, Melnick & myself both as well as Ray DiPalma & Bob Perelman), but Shelley moved away from her post-avant youth toward a more conventional mode & has appeared only in journals since then. David Perry is not the poet David Perry who seems these days to be calling both New York & Kansas City Home, but rather a one-time student of Robert Kelly (along with Bialy & John Gorham) who last I heard was a therapist in upstate New York. Gorham dropped out of UC Berkeley & became a freelance writer. The last time I saw his work in print was in Forbes a couple of years ago. I never have found out what’s become of Paul Xavier – he was calling himself Paul X much of the time back when this was published – like Vinograd very much a street poet. It was Paul who had gotten me (and quite a few other people) into the Berkeley Poetry Conference back in ’65. By the time we edited the ChiRev feature in ’69, Paul was working as an aide to a member of the Berkeley City Council. Tony Shonwald, on the other hand, was the one person in that selection whom I felt certain would be a constant presence on the scene, co-editing a journal on those days called Cloud Marauder that was, with George Hitchcock’s Kayak & Robert Bly’s The Sixties, a mainstay of School of Quietude surrealism. At 21, Shonwald was the most ambitious & aggressive young up-&-comer on the entire poetry scene in the Bay Area. But, once Cloud Marauder shut down, Shonwald seemed to disappear – I can find his name only twice through Google, once (misspelled) in a memoir of these same years by John Oliver Simon in Poetry Flash, the second time among “missing alumni” from the Class at 1965 at his old high school, Lowell, in San Francisco.

Melnick & I tried to represent all of the active formations we saw around the Bay – we wanted the best School of Quietude (SoQ) poets & thought Magowan & Shonwald met our criteria. We knew we had other options there – Chana Bloch was literally my next door neighbor in Berkeley, I’d known Stan Rice for years out at SF State, Arthur Sze was a visible presence on the Berkeley campus. Joe Stroud had just finished up at State. Had we stretched our definition of the Bay Area to include Sacramento, we would certainly have added Dennis Schmitz. In retrospect, I think we showed where our hearts were in having as many street poets as SoQs.

If Melnick’s particular contribution to the overall tone of this project had been his insistence on the street poets, mine was the circle of writers who were either former students of Robert Kelly (Bialy, Gorham, Perry) or else visibly around the magazine Clayton Eshleman published with Kelly’s assistance, Caterpillar (Alexander). A part of me finds it odd & a little sad that that scene evaporated as completely as it did, tho it may have been my own wishful thinking back then to have called it a scene in the first place. Alexander was a fairly isolate character, as was Perry – I don’t think they ever even met one another. Gorham’s departure from poetry was one of those larger scale rejections, disapproving of the progressive politics that were virtually universal among poets during the Nixon years. (Only a couple of years earlier, he’d been the one to drive me to the hospital after I’d been beaten by the Berkeley police during an anti-war demonstration on the UC campus.)

But, as I’ve said more than once here, the first & best test of an anthology is invariably what’s missing, and I cringe at the realization of what’s not included in our ChiRev feature. First, there were two poets whose work Melnick & I both liked a great deal, but it wasn’t at all clear to us in 1969 that there might be any sort of scene evolving around such writing – Rae Armantrout & Robert Grenier. In retrospect, I think it was as much our lack of self-confidence as well as not being able to see the forest for the trees that kept us from proposing their inclusion. Grenier’s poems were already telescoping down to the miniatures that would make up Sentences. Armantrout had not really begun to publish, tho frankly neither had David Perry or John Gorham. Melnick & I discussed both at length & came to the wrong conclusion each time.

The other major omission is any clear representation of the women’s writing scene, as such, in the Bay Area, especially Judy Grahn, already a major poet in 1970 but one who was only then beginning to move beyond the early chapbook versions, say, of Edward the Dyke. There were other possibilities here as well – I’d known Pat Parker since we’d read together in the open reading series at Shakespeare & Co. in Berkeley in the mid-60s, Susan Griffin had been in classes with David Perry & me at SF State, Alta was just then making the transition from being one of the street poets in Berkeley. Melnick & I weren’t able to take that critical step back & see how all these separate poets & events were part of a larger picture.

There were other poets whose work we might have included – Aaron Shurin was a poet we thought about, but we weren’t sure that he’d arrived at his own writing yet (we were right). Others like Steve Ratcliffe & Michael Davidson were around, but not showing their work to anybody. Barrett Watten & Curtis Faville – two other poets we knew who weren’t showing their work to anybody yet – had gone off to the Writers Workshop in Iowa City.

On the other hand, the Chicago Review was a major publication – at least in terms of distribution – for all of the poets we did include & one of the first such instances of this for all of the poets there. Bromige, Irby, Kyger & Stanley really were the center of the feature, tho I’m not sure that David or I fully appreciated that at the time. Bromige & Irby were clearly the major young poets in the Berkeley scene, both already nationally recognized in New American Poetry circles. I think that we thought at the time that Stanley represented San Francisco & Kyger the writing scene that was just then starting to emerge in Bolinas (within the next year or so Robert Creeley & Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Lewis MacAdams, Tom Clark, Phil Whalen & others would all be living in that town of 300), tho in retrospect what I really see is how deeply the old Spicer Circle had become the visible force in the writing scene in San Francisco, just five years after Spicer’s death. Indeed, it is Al Young in the issue who directly addresses the influence of Spicer.

So we got some things right even as we had a couple of major misses. If we’d edited the feature just one year later, Armantrout & Grenier surely would have been included & we might have opted for a different SoQ poet than Shonwald. Would we have included feminist poetics? I’d like to think that the answer is yes, but that might be wishful thinking on my part. Another couple of years beyond that & all the langpos who had moved into the Bay Area – Kit Robinson, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Bob Perelman – as well as the returned Watten & Faville – surely would have been there.

It’s interesting how one can sort of peel back the layers on an almost year-by-year basis like that. Even tho it came out in 1970, the ChiRev feature is a snapshot of the scene in 1969 – it would have looked so totally different by 1974 that it’s almost unimaginable. I can only wonder if younger poets in the Bay Area have the same sense of the scene as evolving with such rapidity now.

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