Friday, September 27, 2002

I pulled out Michael Lally’s None of the Above: New Poets of the USA (Crossing Press, 1976), searching for that quote I used from Jim Gustafson in my note about Joseph Massey’s Minima St. But instead of putting the anthology back after getting what I needed, I’ve left it sitting on my desk and have been rereading it for the first time in years.

The book is a juicy time capsule, an excellent cross section of literary tendencies that were active among younger poets during the middle of that decade. Most visible are a somewhat blurry, already diverging version of the New York School (Phillip Lopate, Paul Violi & Hilton Obenziner from the uptown scene*, Alice Notley, Maureen Owen & Bernadette Mayer from St. Marks, a pre-Texas Lorenzo Thomas, Joe Brainard), langpo (Mayer of course, Bruce Andrews, Ray Di Palma, P. Inman, Lynne Dreyer, yours truly) & a post-Iowa but “anti-workshop” phenomenon of the period that for want of a better term was called Actualism in those days: Darrell Gray, George Mattingly, Dave Morice and Gustafson. In addition to Inman & Dreyer are three other Washington, D.C. poets of the period: Ed Cox, Tim Dlugos and Terence Winch. The collection also contains some poets who are exceptionally difficult to categorize: Barbara Baracks, who departed from the poetry scene & the Bay Area just as language writing was gathering steam; Merrill Gilfillan, who has gone on to become one of the finest nature writers we have; Joanne Kyger, a literary renaissance all to herself**; Patti Smith, just at the cusp of rock stardom; Nathan Whiting, a fascinating loner who used to compose long, skinny texts in his head while running great distances***; and of course the editor, Michael Lally, whose own activity in Baltimore & Washington had proven a catalyst for a lot of the younger poets there but who by the mid 1970s had moved to New York before re-emerging in Los Angeles, working as an actor under the name Michael David Lally in TV and films.

Twenty-six years shifts perceptions around a bit, so that one reads these texts to some degree knowing which writers one still reads with interest and enthusiasm a quarter century hence. Lally’s own interests and blinders are evident enough – that is a remarkably East Coast version of langpo, for example. And with the exceptions of Kyger and myself, writers whose linkage to the New American poetry is to anything other than the New York school are notably absent.

What intrigues me today is the fate of Actualism, which as a phenomenon has largely disappeared over the past two decades. The term itself was taken from the Actualist Conventions put on in Berkeley at the theater of the Blake Street Hawkeyes. Coordinated by poet G.P. Skratz and the Hawkeyes, these annual weekend-long marathons included all manner of performance – Whoopi Goldberg was a Hawkeye in the early 1980s – while the poetics were heavily influenced by the teaching and writing of Ted Berrigan & Anselm Hollo, as well as by Andrei Codrescu, then a recent arrival to SF from Detroit. In addition to the poets included in the Lally anthology, Pat Nolan, Keith Abbott, Jim Nisbet and Victoria Rathbun were among the most visible in the Bay Area.

Perhaps the most important thing to note is that Actualism was an -ism that never sought to be any sort of movement – the anarcho / anti-organizational impulse was very strong. If anything, the Actualist Conventions were themselves a spoof of the least attractive aspect of their surrealist predecessors+. The one other serious manifestation of the phenomenon was an even smaller Actualist Anthology (1977, The Spirit That Moves Us), edited by Gray & Morty Sklar.

On some level, Actualism might be thought of as how the impact of Ted Berrigan resonated through Iowa City to San Francisco. While it was extremely powerful in the 1970s, it’s harder to see a quarter century later. One might make a similar case for the influence Berrigan had on Chicago and look to the Yellow Press anthology, also from 1976, called 15 Chicago Poets.

Nisbet has gone on to become a novelist of neo-noir thrillers, Abbott & Mattingly teach at Naropa & New College, respectively, Morice continues his Dr. Alphabet routines, and Skratz & Nolan still pop up in print from time to time. But Gray drank himself to death with an intensity that was terrifying, Gustafson returned to Detroit where he died too young of an aneurysm without ever having the breakthrough book for which his poetry appeared to be destined, and others who were once loosely affiliated with this phenomenon, such as Allan Kornblum, evolved their own careers in different directions.

I do still sense the impact of the Actualist frame of mind in everything from the Coffee House Books catalog to the Exquisite Corpse website. But if you want some feel for how Actualism fit in back in its heyday, None of the Above contextualizes it best. The rare book website, abebooks, lists 10 copies reasonably priced in stores around the U.S. But pay attention: there are at least three other volumes with that same title, one subtitled “Why Presidents Fail and What Can Be Done About It,” another “Behind the Myth of Scholastic Aptitude,” and the third by children’s book author, Rosemary Wells.


* Although Hilton had already moved west and was immersed in political organizing by then.

** An email I sent to Linda Russo on April 28, 1998 fills in what I mean by this. It’s part of the Joanne Kyger web page at the Electronic Poetry Center.

*** Unfortunately, the anthology form, especially in this rather short collection of 31 poets in 224 pages, didn’t permit any samples of Whiting’s longer works.

+ In addition to every form of performance art imaginable, the Actualist Conventions also included every kind of poetry.