Tuesday, November 07, 2006

 

I first met Barrett Watten in the fall of 1964, when he was a senior at Skyline High School in Oakland & I was hanging out on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. We had a mutual friend, Davy Smith-Margen, a brilliant, peripatetic kid, but he was killed in an auto accident coming back from Nevada in 1966, and I lost touch with Watten for awhile until we ran into each other in Bob Grenier’s office in the English Department at UC Berkeley in 1970.

Grenier I met after transferring finally to UC Berkeley. It was a mid-year transfer, which meant in practice that I could still submit work to the various student writing contests held by the university each year, but really didn’t have any time to get to know the faculty who would be judging the submissions. I pulled together three separate submissions – no names permitted on the manuscript pages – one for each contest, and was planning to submit the one that looked most Olsonian – which in practice, or at least in my practice, meant longest & most pompous & obtuse – to the Joan Lee Yang Award, potentially the most lucrative of the contests, when both Rochelle Nameroff & David Melnick persuaded me that I should send in instead a submission that consisted almost entirely of shorter pieces, essentially a first draft of what would become my first book, Crow. The guy who was judging that contest, they both argued, likes shorter. Their counsel proved its worth when I learned that I had won first prize, tho I still had never met the judge & didn’t do so for a couple of months until, one afternoon in Serendipity Books on Shattuck (an operation that encompassed the business that is now Serendipity Books, the rare book emporium, and Small Press Distribution), a blond fellow who looked too casual to be faculty at Berkeley came up to me & introduced himself, saying, “I thought you were Arthur Sze.”

I soon got to know Grenier better by taking a tutorial with him, a close reading of Zukofsky’s “A” (I had asked both James E.B. Breslin & Dick Bridgman, but each had passed, since it would have required reading the work as well). Grenier was right in the middle of writing the great works that would eventually make up Sentences, which to this day I would still rank as one of the crowning achievements of 20th century poetry, right alongside Tender Buttons, Spring & All, “A” or The Pisan Cantos, the best of Creeley, the best of Olson, Duncan’s Passages, or Ashbery’s Three Poems. Grenier, like everyone else at that moment in American poetry, had been reading Creeley’s Pieces, and had seen their relationship to Zukofsky’s short poems, as well as to the linked verse being written by Ted Berrigan & Stein’s work 65 years earlier in Tender Buttons, a book that had yet to be assimilated into the canon. But where both Creeley & Stein had used micropoetry to focus on formal questions within the poem as such, Grenier’s focus was outward (and in that regard actually closer to Berrigan’s work), seeking to learn what this process of magnification would yield if applied to language in situ. It was almost an anthropological poetics that he seemed to propose. And it was also a rebuke. The Projectivist poets, he seemed to be arguing, spent way too much time trying to figure out how to represent language, but not nearly enough thinking of what it actually was, how it operated, in our mouths, ears, and on the page.

There were a group of younger poets who hung around Grenier in Berkeley – George Ushanoff and Curtis Faville foremost among them – and I picked up the sense, very quickly, that I had suddenly stumbled on the revolution. What Grenier was talking about – constantly, regardless of what the topic at hand might be (even when playing basketball with Hugh Wittemeyer & Stephen Spender, which Grenier once coaxed me into doing) – was something that I couldn’t find in any magazine.

If you read Tottel’s, which is fairly difficult to do given its fugitive nature to begin with & the fact that I had not figured out at that moment the importance of archives (there may be copies in SUNY Buffalo’s rare books collection and in that of the New York Public Library), you can see how it evolves from that first issue, in which Grenier is simply one of several post-avants but the overall aesthetic is much closer to Caterpillar, to becoming one of the first two journals of what we would today call language poetry. The second issue was again a general number, and while there was no evidence of this new writing as such in its pages, the work I tended to look towards it, such as this poem by David Perry (again, not the young poet by the same name today), which led off the issue. The piece is entitled “To a Bird Shadow”:

we re
covered each
other with
out eve
r here
ring who was
spoken or
touching one
ly our own il
lustrations and I
love u lie
ka bird shadow.

The third issue, in June 1971, was Tottel’s first single-author number, devoted to one of the Berkeley poets whom I had gotten to know, Rae Armantrout. The fourth issue, again a general number (appearing just one month after the third), was led off by Larry Eigner. The fifth (two months after the fourth), was a single author issue devoted to Robert Grenier, consisting of 20 poems, of which this was the first.

84

48

24

42

Clark Coolidge led of the sixth issue, again a general number. He had been somebody whose work I had been unable to read until I met Grenier & ran back into Watten. Watten had, in fact, made a conscious effort to show me how to do this by focusing on the role of humor in Coolidge’s poetry, which owes a lot to the work of both Phil Whalen & Jonathan Williams. Coolidge would have his own single-author issue two years later (there had been earlier ones devoted to David Gitin & Thomas Meyer in the meantime, and I would follow immediately with issues devoted to Ray DiPalma, David Melnick, Bruce Andrews & Larry Eigner).

So that if I say that in 1970, just one year after having appeared in both Poetry and Caterpillar, plus three other journals & as the frontispiece to a book from a major trade press, my poetry only appeared in the campus magazine at Berkeley, Occident, and in a five page photocopied handout that I myself had published (this being the first issue of Tottel’s), and that 1970 proved to be a much more important year for me, publishing-wise, maybe you will understand what I mean.

But the real excitement in the fall of 1970 was the news that Grenier (who had moved on from Berkeley to Tufts & was now living in the fabled seaport of Gloucester) and Watten (back in school in Iowa City) were setting out to publish a magazine of their own. This meant, in theory at least, that what people around Grenier in Berkeley had been just presuming was a revolution in American poetry would no longer be a secret. And the first issue of This was everything it promised to be.

It’s worth taking a look at who shows up in that issue. The first poet is Robert Kelly, the second Curtis Faville, the third – her only appearance in print to my knowledge – Laura Knecht, the fourth Tom Clark (short linked poems “from The Notebooks” as their title says), followed by Jim Preston & Thomas March Blum (two Grenier students I believe from Tufts – Blum has one poem entitled “Africa” that has no text at all), followed now by Clark Coolidge, Grenier, Anne Waldman (again very short poems, including the one-line text of “Turn”: suddenly you weren’t listening!), Sidney Goldfarb, Anselm Hollo, Wayne Kabak, more Sidney Goldfarb (this time prose), Grenier’s wife Emily Lord, extracts from the Ph.D. dissertation of Peter Warshall (picked primarily as instances of language, e.g., “Last, ‘Alone’ was most difficult to define. Kaufman used no other adult within twenty feet.”), three poems by Marcia Lawther, four poems by me, six poems by Larry Eigner, a serial work by Watten (the fabled “radio day in Soma City” that was also published as a chapbook for a printing class at Iowa City), two poems by Robert Creeley, a piece of prose by Ken Irby, a photograph of the desk of Charles Olson at the time of his death by Elsa Dorfman, followed by two other portraits she did of Olson & prose accounts accompanying each, one of which functionally is a description of his funeral.

And then Grenier’s critical pieces. First a major review of Creeley’s first volume of essays, A Quick Graph, which Grenier argues basically completes the idea of literary criticism:

Criticism as literary indulgence will no doubt go on and be respected, but in the work that matters, comment is finished, there will have to be no essential difference between criticism and poems, if for no other reason than that poems are going to be so real that nobody will want to read “about” something.

At the end of this piece is a photo, uncredited, of Pound & Olga Rudge looking out of a window in Rapallo. As if to say, this is the end of the Old World. On the next page is Grenier’s “On Speech,” with its claim “I HATE SPEECH.” Again, at the end comes an illustration, this apparently an image taken from a book, or more likely, an old postcard, of entirely empty train station (La Gare Maritime in Brussels). The symbolism could not be more explicit. This is followed by a review of Creeley’s Pieces that announces, early on,

“PROJECTIVE VERSE,’ IS PIECES ON

And this is followed by reviews of Gertrude Stein’s Lectures in America – nothing but quoted passages until, right at the end, Grenier quotes Pieces again – and Edward Lear’s The Complete Nonsense Book.

While Grenier & Watten are clearly including both the New York School & the Projectivists (and by practice not including any SF Renaissance or Beat poets), Grenier’s critical works frame them as the culmination of the past. Olson is dead & Projectivism is seen as not really beginning until Creeley’s work of 1969, Pieces. If my own Tottel’s glides between a focus on the New American Poetry & what we today would call language writing, the revolutionary nature of This, and especially This 1, was inescapable. In my life, this is the magazine that changed the world.

From Community Libertarian & Poetry Nothwest to Tottel’s & This – these represent all of the types of relationships I’ve really ever had with a journal, from reading & just trying to get my work represented, to using them as a means of making a statement, ultimately to becoming part of a conversation that had, as its explicit goal, a desire to change literature itself. And while there have continued to be journals that have had a major impact on me, from Poetics Journal, Roof & L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E to Chain & Crayon & No, all can seen, from my perspective at least, as extensions of impulses that first found themselves in Coyote’s Journal, Caterpillar, the Poetry of the latter half of Henry Rago’s editorial years, the campus magazine at UC Berkeley, Occident, my own photocopied (and later mimeographed) newsletter, Tottel’s, and finally This.

My point being that there isn’t just one value or one relationship one might have to a journal & that it’s important to explore all of the many options. Tho to have a This in one’s life is a particular gift & not something very many people get to have. If I have a standard complaint about so many of today’s journals, that they’re not sufficiently radical, that they want to be merely of the world, but not to change it, it’s precisely because what’s then closed off to their participants is this last dimension. That’s an experience I’d love to share with all.

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