Showing posts with label Darrell Gray. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Darrell Gray. Show all posts

Monday, April 02, 2012

Darrell Gray reading in 1983

Part 2 is here

Monday, October 07, 2002

Actualism vanished as a literary tendency as thoroughly as Objectivism seemed to have done in the early 1950s. While the annual Berkeley Actualist Conventions were one public manifestation of this phenomenon, a rather different version than the one visible in the Bay Area during the 1970s is suggested by The Actualist Anthology (The Spirit That Moves Us, 1977), co-edited by Morty Sklar and the late Darrell Gray. In addition to the editors, the volume includes Allan and Cinda Kornblum, Chuck Miller, Anselm Hollo, John Batki, Jim Mulac, David Hilton, Sheila Heldenbrand, George Mattingly, John Sjoberg, Steve Toth and Dave Morice.

The editors state frankly that “Calling this volume THE ACTUALIST ANTHOLOGY came mainly out of a need for a title.* ‘Fourteen Iowa City Poets’ wouldn’t have been accurate – this is not a regional anthology in the strict sense.” But in some sense, it was: “we have sought have sought to represent the work of those poets most seminal to the Actualist Movement, which began (in spirit, if not name) around 1970 in Iowa City, Iowa. Half of us remain in Iowa, while others have moved….” Almost as pronounced as the crucible of Iowa City was this group’s decidedly Midwestern background – eight of the contributors (Miller, Mulac, Heldenbrand, Mattingly, Sjoberg, Toth, Morice & Cinda Kornblum) were born in the Midwest, Darrell Gray was raised there. Generationally, the Actualists roughly the same age as the language poets, ranging from a few poets born in the 1930s (Hollo, Sklar, Hilton, Miller) to others born right around the mid-century mark (Toth, Heldenbrand, Mattingly).

As a group, these writers proved antithetical to the “Workshop poem” associated with poets such as Marvin Bell or Norman Dubie. The poems were often casual, but always lively. Sklar, in “What Actually is Actualism,” characterized it as a “basically open, generous and positive approach to our art.” Actualists poked fun at the academy & prided themselves on their rough edges: both Sklar and Miller lists bouts of incarceration in their biographical notes.

The literary context for Actualism is worth noting. Allan Kornblum spells out his influences in the greatest detail:

Thanks to my poetry teachers in workshops: Dick Gallup, Carter Ratcliff, Tom Veitch, Ted Berrigan, Jack Marshall, Donald Justice, and Anselm Hollo.

While Justice taught at Iowa for many years, the core of this list is a mélange of second and third generation New York School poets. As different as Gallup, Ratcliff, Veitch & Berrigan are as poets – the range of what gets included under the NY School banner is as broad as that which now gets characterized as language poetry – what one notices about this quartet is how absent they have been from the poetry scene for a very long time: Berrigan by virtue of an early death, Ratcliff having turned to art criticism, Veitch to graphic novels (including an authorized Star Wars trilogy), and Gallup having, in the words of Publishers Weekly,  “disengaged from the literary world in the early ‘80s.” Marshall, who has managed to stay around the NY School, Iowa City and the San Francisco scene, keeping all three safely at arm’s length, is only slightly less reclusive.

By the mid-1980s, this context had all but evaporated. Even more importantly, by the time Darrell Gray died in 1986, alcoholism had effectively silenced him. While Actualism itself cannot be reduced to Gray’s poetry & impact, he was clearly its central figure, both socially and intellectually. Without Gray, none of the other participants, either in the Bay Area or from the Iowa formation, continued to pursue the concept. Without Berrigan, the single most important influence on Actualism, the link between the New York School and these poets scattered mostly throughout the west became nebulous in the extreme.

But if Actualism as a tendency disappeared, many of the Actualists themselves did not. In addition to Mattingly, Hollo and Morice, whom I’ve discussed previously in the blog, the Kornblums have transformed Toothpaste Press, virtually the house organ of Iowa Actualism**, into Coffee House Press, one of the best and most successful independent presses in the United States. In addition to its many other books, Coffee House recently brought Dick Gallup back into print with his first book since 1976, Shiny Pencils at the Edge of Things, and has just another big “new and selected” volume by Jack Marshall, Gorgeous Chaos as well as Anselm Hollo’s Notes on the Possibilities and Attractions of Existence, his largest collection since Mattingly’s Blue Wind Press editions more than 20 years ago. Sklar occasionally still issues books from The Spirit That Moves Us Press from Jackson Heights, NY. John Batki, who characterized himself as the “Laziest Actualist,” has instead grown into one of the finest translators of Eastern European poetry. David Hilton has been teaching at Anne Arundel Community College near Baltimore for over 30 years. And Steve Toth maintains a somewhat “under construction” website that includes memorials to both Ted Berrigan and Darrell Gray. 

* This rationale perfectly matches the one given for Objectivism: letting Zukofsky take over Poetry magazine for an issue required something identifiable, requiring a name.

** When The Actualist Anthology came out in 1977, Toothpaste Press had already published books by both Kornblums, Hollo, Sklar, Batki, Gray, Hilton, Heldenbrand, Sjoberg, Toth and Morice.

Monday, September 30, 2002

The death of Darrell Gray ensured that Actualism could only meet a very different fate than Objectivism. Death enters the equation as well with the disappearance of another literary tendency of the past sixty years: the Spicer Circle. If ever there was a phenomenon that cried out for a large, well researched anthology, this is it.

The Spicer Circle had a significant impact on poetry, both in the U.S. and Canada, but characterizing or analyzing that impact is difficult because so little is adequately understood about the phenomenon by anybody other than those who were there. I wasn’t – I first heard of Spicer at a memorial reading held at Shakespeare & Company books (it may still have called the Rambam in those days) in Berkeley that was held, as best I can recall, around what must have been his birthday in early 1966.

Soon, three key associates of Spicer’s – Robin Blaser, George Stanley & Stan Persky – would move to British Columbia. In the ten year hiatus between Spicer’s death and two events that were to transform his place in literary history, the publication of his Collected Books by Black Sparrow press and the special issue of Paul Mariah’s Manroot magazine that was to place Spicer alongside Whitman & a handful of others as a founder of a gay aesthetic, only Clayton Eshleman’s Caterpillar 12 was to focus in any serious fashion on the Spicer’s work. While Caterpillar published over 150 pages of Spicer’s early poems, correspondence, a chapter from his detective novel and the first Vancouver lecture, it also positioned Blaser’s own poetry first, with the sole other contribution a four page essay on the pair from the issue’s guest editor, Persky.

In addition to that long silence & Spicer’s own dogged reluctance to permit his work and that of his friends out of the immediate physical confines of San Francisco (refusing, for example, to send his short-lived magazine J by mail), the period between 1965 and ’75 was one of extraordinary transformations in American culture and politics could not help but to reverberate throughout poetry. Spicer, who wrote about the war in Vietnam and the Beatles, was actually one of the first to sense these changes. But others that were to come soon, from Stonewall to Watergate, might have proven more difficult for him to digest and it is not hard to envision a later Spicer in the sort of reactionary alcoholic stupor that befuddled Kerouac before his death just a few years hence.

But the Spicer Circle was something more than just the poetry of Jack Spicer & something other than a Mattachine Society of verse*. Poets as diverse as Joanne Kyger, Larry Fagin and Jack Gilbert actively participated in events that were central to the Spice kreis. Poets who were not primarily San Franciscan, including Steve Jonas & John Wieners, could also be said to have played roles as well. An anthology such as the one I imagine would have to develop a serious & critically defensible definition of what the Spicer Circle actually was before it could go about the task to tracking down and collecting the poetry.

The Manroot issue remains the only hint of what such an anthology might look like**, containing as it does work by Harold Dull, Lew Ellingham, James Herndon, Jonas, Persky, Stanley, Wieners & Spicer, as well as a collaboration by Spicer & Stanley with Ronnie Primack and Bruce Boyd.***

Dull is a good example of what we are missing in not having a far better sense of the Spicer Circle. He published several small books in the 1950s and ‘60s, including The Star Year, The Door, Bird Poems, and The Wood Climb Down Out Of. Then in 1975 he published A Selection of Poems for Jack Spicer on the Tenth Anniversary of His Death. Since then, Dull has only published texts about Watsu, his aquatic bodywork practice that evolved out of Zen shiatsu. Herndon, Primack, James Alexander and Joe Dunn are other members of the Circle whose writing is even more difficult to find.

In 1967, I heard Jack Gilbert introduce George Stanley as “the finest poet now writing.” Today, their work seems worlds apart. A good anthology would in fact demonstrate a world in which that contradiction might not occur. It would have to sort through some infinitely thorny issues, including Robert Duncan’s relationship to the circle (not to mention Blaser’s). I’m not the person to mount that effort, although perhaps someone like Kevin Killian, who helped to shape Lew Ellingham’s drafts into the masterful biography that is Poet Be Like God, is.

* The Mattachine Society was an early gay rights organization, contemporary with Spicer & likewise headquartered in San Francisco.

***Abebooks, the rare books network, lists at least dozen copies of the Spicer issue of Manroot as well as a couple of complete runs of the journal available for sale.

*** Boyd is himself noteworthy as the participant in the Donald Allen anthology, The New American Poetry, who disappeared from the scene completely.