Thursday, March 06, 2003

A couple of people wrote to suggest that my general list of outsider poets was far too “inside.” Michael Helsem notes that

Xexox Sutra Editions (now Xexoxial Endarchy) published several writers who must be considered bonafide "outsiders", notably the artist/poet Malok (who is now online); his drawings in particular bear comparison with anything at Lausanne...

Chris Sullivan, editor [if bricolage can be called editing] of the excellently weird zine, Journal of Public Domain, comments:

Todays discussion of "outsiders" got me to wonder [sic] if you are aware of the "song-poem" genre.

There's a website devoted to it, and I'm forwarding a link to a page about Thomas Guygax

To which I would note that, yep, these guys are so far outside that they need to carry sun block. In general, the writers I listed were successful poets who, for various reasons, live or lived pretty marginally, at least in economic or social terms. But, since the original note from Jason Earls to which I was responding invoked Henry Darger as its example, the hospital janitor & pedophile painter/novelist whose work would have been lost had not his landlord been an art-savvy professional photographer who discovered the paintings & writing among Darger’s effects after this escapee from a “home for the feeble minded” passed away, perhaps I should have been thinking further outside the box.

These notes harkened me back to my work with the Tenderloin Writers Workshop in San Francisco between 1979 & ’81, and some of the writers there, especially Harley Kohler, a bearded (!) cross-dresser who wrote generally obscene sonnets in a language given almost entirely over to neologisms, or “Spider” James Taylor, a young man who penned long, obsessive novels with a gritty comic-book realism. The Workshop – which had a “no guns in class” rule that I made up on the spot one evening – included an amazing diversity of inner-city perspectives, from drug-addicted street people to senior women who would crochet while listening to the different readers, then simply comment something like, “Well, I think all junkies should be shot, present company excepted.” A few of the writers who participated in the workshop – Mary Tall Mountain, Bob Harrison, Charles Bivins – went on to publish quite successfully. But one of the strongest memories I have of the group was an evening in which Bob Holman, traveling through San Francisco, dropped by in time to watch two of the writers, one from New Orleans, the other from the Caribbean, disagree on the nature of Santeria &, accordingly, cast curses upon one another.

There were even writers in the Tenderloin in those years whose lives proved so far outside that even the notably free-ranging workshop was far too confining. One man, whose name I only knew as Douglas, would pen long, mostly unreadable texts in black magic marker on the neighborhood’s few very scrawny trees.

One of the things I like most about Cary Nelson’s Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945 (Wisconsin, 1989) is how Nelson constructs a panorama of the entire range of between-wars poetry starting with one of its most “despised” subgenres, leftwing doggerel published in “non-literary” political tabloids. The idea that the whole of writing might be continuous may be something of a theoretical fiction – it’s much more like overlapping tectonic plates – but Nelson’s tour-de-force (the book is a single long prose meditation on the violence hidden in canonization, while the footnotes, which consume half or more of almost every page, constitute a history of one period of American letters as detailed as any written) does demonstrate just how much further beyond the traditionally conceived boundaries belle lettre truly extends.

Everywhere, people write. My experience of the Tenderloin was that I got to see manuscripts from perhaps two percent of the adult community in any given year. Extrapolate that out across the population of the United States & you get a number in the millions. Indeed, the 1,000 actively publishing writers in the Philadelphia region that Robin’s Book Store claims to have in its database would, at that rate, represent only one percent of all the local people who actually write.  Now, inner city communities with large populations of the retired as well as the disabled may well prove to have more writers than the exurbs of quiet desperation, simply because these segments of the population have that rarest of commodities, surplus time, but the general principle itself still stands.

Over the years, I’ve learned an enormous amount from writers like Harley Kohler & Spider Taylor. These writers don’t necessarily connect to poetry as a social practice, though they do, it seems, very much rely on its role as a personal one.* They make it possible for me to see, however fleetingly, just which presumptions I might be making with regards to my own poetry. How publishing itself is predicated on a long list of such presumptions. Should I count these people in my roster of “outsider poets”? I think that may be a definitional question, but I absolutely count them among my own significant influences.

*Kohler in particular got to know some of the other poets in the Bay Area, such as Lyn Hejinian. His partner at one point was a caretaker in the first board-&-care home that Larry Eigner lived in when he first moved to Berkeley.