Friday, January 07, 2005

L-R: Morgan Gibson, Karl Young & Karl Gartung


In 1967, nine years before I was to first meet Lyn Hejinian face-to-face at a book fair at San Francisco’s Fort Mason, Morgan Gibson had the idea of placing our poetry on facing pages of Arts in Society, a cultural mag published by the University of Wisconsin. Our work wasn’t at all like it would later become – indeed we were even using slightly different monikers, me being “Ronald” & she styling herself as “C.H. Hejinian” in those days – and the only visible aspect that our histories or biographies had at all in common, at least so far as Gibson could tell, was that we had both appeared in Poetry Northwest, one of the School of Quietude’s most hushed venues back in the sixties. Lyn & I have sometimes wondered what exactly Morgan saw in our writing that caused him to place us in such proximity. He was right long before either one of us suspected it.


I didn’t actually meet Gibson until after he’d accepted my work for publication, but I’d known about him for a few years. He was something of the official radical-on-campus at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee during the mid-1960s & Shelley, my first wife, had been a protégé, hanging out with all the other students who seemed to make themselves comfortable in the Victorian house off-campus where Morgan & his wife lived. There was somebody like Morgan at almost every college & university during that decade, virtually none of whom are still at the same schools today. And while it’s easy enough to satirize the excesses of the time (the Cal State Sacramento prof who turned his students on in class, the Berkeley theater prof whose classes included orgies, or even Gibson & his wife, who were hounded out of UWM over an incident involving a cherry bomb in a mailbox), these people were extraordinarily important in opening up the imaginations of an entire generation of students – everything from the counter-culture of the sixties to the dot com boom of the 1990s can be traced back to the anything-is-possible approach these folks proposed . . . in profound contrast to the likes of Robert MacNamara & Richard Nixon.


As a Rexroth scholar, Gibson came by his radicalism organically. Since leaving UWM, Gibson has spent much of his time in Japan, where he currently serves as a contributing editor to the expat Kyoto Journal. I last saw him just before my kids were born, at the 1991 MLA in San Francisco. But considering how many other poets who were active in the 1950s that are still active now – a number that might not get into very far into double digits – Gibson remains one of the upbeat examples of how to go about a lifelong career as poet:


I lost all

friends but you.

Now you.




Watching snow

listening to snow

and “snow.”








The above are excerpts from “In Mummy-Bag,” a sequence that can be found in the latest issue of Gam, Stacy Szymaszek’s mag from Milwaukee, the third issue of which focuses on what the cover describes as “(some) roots of experimental writing in Milwaukee.” This is a terrific idea for a special issue of a mag, especially one coming from (and thus documenting) any other place than New York or San Francisco. The issue focuses upon three poets: Gibson, Karl Young and Karl Gartung.


Young is undoubtedly the most widely known of the three. Karl was one of the very first poets to understand the potential of computers and the internet as a mechanism for enabling the creation, distribution and archiving of poetry. His Light & Dust Anthology of Poetry is the grand-daddy of web poetry archives & remains a great resource. It was Karl who originally invited me to edit a special issue of Margin on the poetry of Clark Coolidge, which more than anything made me conscious of the value of being able to talk & write critically about new modes of poetry. Karl’s own poetry is diverse in mode & impulse. And while he might be more famous today if he were to hone in on a single mode poem around which to build a brand (I’m actually being serious when I say that), what’s really kept him from becoming the household name he deserves to be has been that he’s reserved his great energies to promote poetry, rather than to advocate for Karl Young’s poetry. That’s a generosity of spirit that should never be discounted.


If Karl Young is the most widely known of the three, Karl Gartung is probably the least. He seems to share that allergy toward self-promotion with both Young & Gibson. If Gartung has ever published a book, I’ve not had the fortune to see it – indeed, I’ve seen relatively few works in mags over the years. I did a search on Google & the first piece of actual writing I found was an article in Teamsters for a Democratic Union – Gartung has been a fulltime truck driver as long as I’ve known him, which has enabled him & his longtime partner Anne Kingsbury to create & build Woodland Pattern, hands down the best poetry bookstore in the entire nation.


So I was especially happy to see some of Gartung’s work in the issue, poems that reflect a relaxed post-projectivist impulse. I’m not sure just how well I’ll be able to get Blogger to handle the spacing of this one properly, but here’s my favorite:




         if not


We cannot

  at this point

know them

though we would


much less prevent

       what happened


much as we

       will not prevent

       such things


again though we



and will become

       mere vapor

   in the heat

that sheer knowledge

that fog that

                  will remain



so we must


on our local



                   such truth

as may be constructed

at close range


“Constructed / at close range” indeed! It’s an amazing thing that nobody’s thought to do such an issue as this before. The idea of promoting a sense of history about your place, wherever that might be, makes such great sense. It’s worth noting of course that none of the three took exactly the same route to the post-avant, nor were they the only people in & around Milwaukee that had such influence. Tom Montag was there, as was crafts artist & Woodland Pattern’s executive director Anne Kingsbury, and Walter Hamady, the great book artist, wasn’t so far away. Out of just such roots are substantial literary communities grown.


Gam is published in an issue of 100, so if you want this one – and it’s definitely a keeper – I suggest writing to Stacy Szymaszek at sooner rather than later.