Thursday, March 26, 2009




This post celebrates the full measure of Aram Saroyan’s minimal poetry.

Such celebration might seem unnecessary, redundant, or just plain late. Since its Spring 2007 publication, Saroyan’s Complete Minimal Poems (Ugly Duckling Presse) has received many positive notices, maybe more in this period than any other experimental poetry collection.

In addition to numerous kudos from reviewers in specialty publications and the blogosphere, Complete Minimal Poems was praised in the New York Times Sunday Book Review and won the 2008 William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America (see endnote #1, below, for a list of and links to some of these reviews). A year after its publication, the book topped the Small Press Distribution poetry bestseller list for a four-month stretch, and went into a second printing.

What could a little ol’ reader like me possibly now add to all this?

Well, let’s start with this: Complete Minimal Poems is not complete, and the omissions amount to far more than a few overlooked poems. Regrettably, the book does not include approximately fifty (yes, 50) Saroyan minimal poems that most certainly should have been in it. Part I of this post documents and celebrates these missing poems.

In addition, Part II of this post celebrates the work of Saroyan that arguably could have been included in the Ugly Duckling book. This work was published in the same general period as his minimal poetry, and is closely related to those poems. Included in this group is Saroyan’s “electric novel” (titled cloth) which as explained below seems in retrospect to be a minimal longpoem, odd as that may sound.

Finally, part III of this post celebrates the minimal poems Saroyan wrote in collaboration with other poets. While such work obviously was appropriately excluded from the single-author Complete Poems, it should be recognized and celebrated as part of Saroyan’s achievement in minimal writing.

I’ve had HUGE FUN doing the seeking, finding, and reading, reading, reading necessary to write this post. In addition to quoting in full several poems (not difficult with Saroyan, since they often are just a few words in length), I’ve also included scans of the covers and other matter from more than a dozen Saroyan books that contained minimal work.

I’ve also had HUGE FUN getting to know the full measure of Saroyan’s minimal poetry. Even the disappointing discovery regarding the Ugly Duckling edition’s shortcomings hasn’t dampened my enthusiasm for Saroyan’s minimal works. In fact, my admiration for Saroyan’s achievement has only increased through my reading of: (1) the approximately 50 poems that should have been included in the Ugly Duckling book, (2) the minimal writing that’s closely related to the (and could even be called) minimal poems, and (3) the collaborative minimal poems.

I’ll put it like this: if the work in Complete Minimal Poems strikes you, as it did me, as mind-blowing, then the achievement of Saroyan’s minimal work in the full measure of its resplendent glory is (I request here your indulgence):





(New York:Ugly Duckling Presse, 2007)
(cover altered to make the point that’s discussed in detail below)

The term “Complete Poems” has no universally agreed upon meaning, apparently. The dictionary defines complete as “having all . . . ; lacking nothing; whole; entire; full.” However, it is not unheard of for a “Complete Poems” to exclude some work, even though I think most would say that a book with that title ought to attempt to include everything the poet finished, or at least published. But because there are no rules about this, perhaps the most a reader can ask is an editorial note explaining in some detail what if anything was left out, and why.

The Ugly Duckling Complete Minimal Poems has no identified editor. It includes only an very terse statement about what was included, and nothing at all about why many poems were left out. An acknowledgements section at the back of the book simply lists where some of the poems had been previously published. The only editorial statement, if it can be deemed that, comes in a short blurb on the back cover, which states that the book “gather[s] together” Saroyan’s minimal poems from the 1960s.

However, and as detailed below, this “gather[ing]” substantially shortchanges Saroyan’s work, even if the 1960s is assumed to be the only time period that matters: for reasons not explained, more than thirty minimal poems published by Saroyan in that decade are not included in the book. The Ugly Duckling edition also does not acknowledge that about fifteen minimal poems from the early 1970s also aren’t in the book, nor explain why these were deemed inappropriate.

The Ugly Duckling Saroyan is a beautiful book. But it isn’t close to a complete volume of Saroyan’s minimal poems, as the book’s title and back cover hype seem to promise. Given the number of missing poems, the absence of any editorial explanation is -- and I’m being very, very polite here -- extremely disappointing. In any event, here’s a detailed rundown of what was missed:

In 1966, the publisher 0 to 9 published a mimeographed edition of Saroyan minimal poems titled coffee coffee (the lowercase is from the original cover, a scanned image of which is presented after the endnote below, along with the covers of other Saroyan books that included minimal works). Thirty of the 34 poems in coffee coffee consist of only a single word; the four that don’t have a single word, or two, repeated multiple times. Each poem, including those with but a single word, is printed on a separate page, and is centered on the page.

Only five of the poems in coffee coffee can be found in the Ugly Duckling edition. That means that twenty-nine (29!) poems were left behind, including the marvelously understated:


the beautiful on the page, fun on the tongue:

the sharp, tonsorial:


and the long long long long cold cold cold cold:


I trust the point has been made here, without needing to set out the rest of the two dozen plus poems that were not included. The above poems, as is true of the others left out from coffee coffee, are solid works even if they may not all be instant minimal classics along the lines of Saroyan’s orthographically altered single word poems (e.g., “eyeye” or “lighght”).

Saroyan’s poems made of a single, non-altered word (of which there are a handful in the Ugly Duckling edition) generally come alive with a kind of stony resonance, but usually it takes a good hard stare and time to bring on. Thus, a poem from coffee coffee such as


might not seem like much at first. But then there’s the fascinating way the silent “e” at the end is indeed silent yet somehow also manages to transpose its phonetic sound to a position before the letter “r” which precedes it. Plus there’s the fun of thinking how a relatively small (four-letter) word came to signify 43,560 square feet. These single word poems may take a good long look to get going, but when they get going, they can really move the mind. I’m reminded of Clark Coolidge’s comment that when Saroyan would stare at his (Saroyan’s) own single word poems, each word at times would “start to look like a funny little animal.”

But regardless of the relative merits of these single word poems, they certainly are minimal poems – quintessential minimal poems, perhaps – and most certainly should have been included in a book called “Complete.”

Unfortunately, the almost thirty poems left out from coffee coffee aren’t the only Saroyan minimal poems from the 1960s not included in the Ugly Duckling Complete. Of the eleven poems in IN (bear press, 1965 [see scan in endnotes below, including of the tremendous Ted Berrigan introduction]), eight made it in. Of the three poems not included, one arguably isn’t minimal, but the other two certainly are. One is a prose poem of the objectivist, be-here-now variety, a definite sub-type of Saroyan’s minimal work:

Almost Midnight

I type & think & look at the painting of Poe & out
the window there’s the top of my head, to the left
and behind me, is the bookcase.
I love how the ampersands of the first line, as they curve and cross within themselves, somehow convey the churning, turning, complicating processes of engaged but scattered thought and vision, and then how the ampersands completely vanish in the second and third lines, just as the scattered, churning processes of the poet’s mind vanish as everything resolves into the details of the reflection (unstated but sure enough right there) in the window.

Also missing from the Ugly Duckling edition is one poem from Saroyan’s Works (Lines, 1966), and one from Aram Saroyan (Lines, 1967). The poem missing from the latter chapbook has an interesting variation regarding how the words are arranged on the page. While each of the three words in the poem is on its own line and are more or less in the center of the page, the words are justified to a margin on their right-sides, so that they align vertically at their ends. It’s a neat reversal of the tyranny of the left-side margin often found in poetry:


The Ugly Duckling book also leaves out all four of the poems in Saroyan’s The Beatles (Barn Dream Press, 1970), including the first poem of that volume, the immortal unforgettable:

John Lennon

And, I’m sorry to report, there’s yet another big bunch of poems missing from the Ugly Duckling that should have been included. The book reprints none of the minimal poems written by Saroyan in 1973 and published by him in Day By Day (Fell Swoop 61, New Orleans, no date [but in or after 1979]). This side-stapled limited edition (200 copies) reproduces holographic poems individually dated by Saroyan and which in the book he states were written during his family’s first spring in Bolinas. Many of these poems are full-line, multi-stanza works, and thus not minimal. But about 10 or 12 of the poems in Day By Day certainly are minimal, even if only the very shortest -- those with just a few or several words, over a line or two or maybe three -- are counted.

I suppose the good folks at Ugly Duckling might suggest that they limited their book to minimal poems from the 1960s. But of course the book isn’t titled Complete 1960s Minimal Poems. Saroyan himself has said that he wrote a “very few” minimal poems while in Bolinas. So again, if the Ugly Duckling Book were to truly live up to its title, these Day By Day poems would be necessary, including for example (please note: typewritten text is used here in place of Saroyan’s holograph):
the stars
are me
So good.
and (a favorite, a minimal poem that could be optioned for a major Hollywood film):

Invade the earth!
There are also two or three additional minimal poems, not in the Ugly Duckling, published in Saroyan’s Day & Night: Bolinas Poems (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1998).

So taking all the above into account, here’s the maximal scoop: the Ugly Duckling Aram Saroyan Complete Minimal Poems is short about 50 no-doubt-about-it minimal poems. O me. O my. What the heck happened here?


(Minimal Poems By Any Other Name)

In addition to the 50 or so poems that no-doubt-about-it should have been included in Complete Minimal Poems, there’s other writing by Saroyan, from the same general time period, that arguably could have been included, or at the least must be acknowledged as directly related to the minimal poems. There is, for example, the writing in:

(Chicago: Big Table Publishing Company, 1970)
6.5" square
[there was both a hardcover dust-jacketed, and a softcover edition]

The title says exactly what’s in the book, and everything (the words and photos) in it is by Saroyan. The book sets up the words (usually just a single word, but sometimes two or three) in the center of the page (sound familiar?), with a photo en face (on the opposite page). Some of the photos have an actual identifying caption; the words opposite aren’t really captions, but word-poems that mostly mysteriously relate to the opposing photo. Saroyan here almost totally, and convincingly, reverses the canard about a photograph being worth a thousand words: sometimes just one is exactly perfect, thank you very much. Here are three of the book’s 37 pairs of words and photographs, displayed via scans that closely replicate the look when the book is opened to the pages reproduced (each of the six individual images can be enlarged in a new screen by clicking on it):



You gotta love the symmetry-echo of the last word-photo pair, with the lengths of the letters “P” and“ l” and to a certain extent “t” suggesting, in an off-kilter, turned-sideways kind of way, the look of the stacked dishes. And you also gotta love the sonic resonance in the middle pair above, the hum, of “Umm.”

But you really, really gotta love the first word-photo pair above, and in particular the poetic thing-iness of “This.” Saroyan here provides no indication whatsoever of whether that word is being used as a pronoun, adjective, or adverb. That ambiguity only adds to the mystery of why it’s paired with a shot of Lisbon rooftops and sky, or how this most common word can act as a sentence (complete with period) all by itself. To me, the word as used by Saroyan has, to use Roman Jakobson’s phrase, a “weight and value” of its own. A single word -- a signifier -- whose materiality is emphasized: that’s a minimal poem, I do believe, and one quite consistent with a key principle of, among others, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers.

The year after Words & Photographs, Saroyan published a tremendously (to use a term of that era) far-out text titled cloth with the tripped-out subtitle an electric novel (the lowercase is used both on the book’s cover and title page) . Although subtitled a novel, and referred to as such no less than seven times on the front dust-jacket flap, I think it rightly should be considered a minimal poem. More accurately, if oxymoronically, the book’s a minimal longpoem, maybe the only such work ever. Here’s a scan of the cover, with publishing details:

an electric novel
(Chicago: Big Table Publishing Company, 1971)
5.25"H x 6.5"W
[there was both a hardcover dust-jacketed, and a softcover edition]

Saroyan’s cloth ain’t your usual “novel.” First, it’s an electric novel. Electric as in plugged in, turn-it-up rock ‘n roll, I believe, in that the book’s dedicated to Chuck Berry; and possibly also, considering the era in which it was written, electric as in lysergic acid diethylamide. The book is also, as stated on the dustjacket flap, “a novel without sentences, plot, or characters.” And it’s further, again borrowing from the dustjacket, “a novel that is a kind of toy,” and a novel that “helps to define where experimental writing is.”

What the book actually has is a series of single words centered on pages (sound familiar, fellow lovers of Saroyan’s minimal work?). The words are organized into four roman numeral designated sections of about two dozen words each. The words are printed only on the rectos (the right sides of pages when the book is opened), with the versos (left sides) left blank. Thus, each of the book’s approximately 100 words strongly inhabits – dominates – its particular given space, just as do Saroyan’s single word minimal poems.

This arrangement means means that each separate word must be taken in on its own, and thus each word, potentially, can take on a life of its own. In short, each word becomes an opportunity for intense poetic reverie, a word-poem in itself.

Take for example (to pick a word from cloth at random):


which appears early in the first section. I read that word and think about its two main meanings, and how those meanings seem unrelated to each other. I think also about the connotations of those respective meanings. I think too about the word’s physical appearance on the page – its existence as an object – as well as its constituent letters and phonemes. I think about the word’s sound. I even, if it’s the middle of the day and I’m hungry, think a bunch about lunch.

Of course in cloth -- and this in part is why I think the text should be considered a minimal longpoem -- the reveries on a particular word are further reflected in the prism of the words and reveries that come both before and after the particular word being read. Here’s the word from the book quoted above (“hunch”) with the three words preceding and then following it (remember, each word is centered on its own page, with a blank page opposite):








This particular combination can serve as a typical example of the word-strings found in cloth. The words when read -- forwards, back, or jumbled -- form no grammatically correct phrases; indeed, there’s not even discernible rational connections word-to-word, let alone a foregrounded narrative.

Hmmm. That all sounds like, and the words certainly can be read as, a kind of experimental poetry. “[A] rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” Although cloth was called by Saroyan himself a “novel,” I hereby submit that it’s a minimal longpoem, of the abstract variety. It’s rich with words juxtaposed into parataxsis and words laid out to emphasize their qualities as objects, with the reader given great freedom in constructing meaning. That, my friends, is a poem! To include cloth in the Ugly Duckling edition would have been a stretch, I do admit, and would have increased the size of that book considerably, but it would have been grand, as well as appropriate.

(Almost scandalously, used copies for sale of cloth: an electric novel have all but disappeared from the places even seasoned book-hunters would look. Fortunately, UbuWeb has the book it in its entirety – click here to go to the title page, and then click on it and each succeeding page.)

Another Saroyan minimalist work from the same general period is Gertrude Stein (Lines, 1967). The Utah Eclipse site – where the chapbook, listed under Saroyan’s name, is available for viewing (click here) – states that although published anonymously there was or is “little question” as to work’s editor. The book takes snippets of language (words) from Stein’s As Fine As Melanctha and centers them on 17 pages, just a few words per page. For example:

Between today.

Here’s another example, a lovely, suggestive three-word (three-sentence) combination:

Cunning. Likely. Breezes.

Gertrude Stein is a wonderful experiment in high-end minimal appropriative writing. The anonymous or appropriative character of this particular work arguably makes it unsuitable for inclusion in a Complete Minimal Poems, but I’d put it in. At the least, Saroyan’s Gertrude Stein must be recognized as part of his achievement in minimal poetry.

Another late 1960s Saroyan work, © 1968 Aram Saroyan (New York: Kulchur Press, 1968), also should be mentioned as a minimal poetry satellite text. It consisted of an unopened ream of typing paper on which was stamped the title, Saroyan’s name, and the publisher. It’s probably better called a conceptual work, but on the other hand I sometimes think that selling the reader a stack of blank paper was the most radically beautiful act of minimal poetry ever.



I’m aware of two published collaborations of minimal poetry that Saroyan took part in. One is San Francisco, a very small unstapled and unbound booklet of just five poems done with Andrei Codrescu (I don’t know who wrote what). Here’s the cover and publishing details:

(San Francisco: Fits Collective, 1972)
(4.25" square)

One of the poems in San Francisco strikes me as particularly charming, a sly, concise, and humorous mini-primer on the vagaries of English pronunciation, particularly as that concerns Saroyan’s first name (the hand-printed poem of the booklet is replaced with typed text):

Aram with a hard A
like in America
Saroyan also collaborated on a collection of minimal poetry with Larry Fagin. The publication, while stating its title and authors on a title page, provides no other information about where, how, and when it was done (a knowledgeable bookseller on-line states it was probably done in about 1968). The cover is decidedly, and I think winningly and hilariously, minimal:

([no place listed]: [no publisher listed], [no date listed](1968?)
11"H x 8.5"W

This Fagin/Saroyan collaboration is a mimeoed and side-stapled book (or booklet), and contains seven poems (again, I don’t know who wrote what). All the poems are identical in structure: a capitalized single word title beneath which, after just a bit of blank space, is a short (no more than six word) sentence. Each poem, natch, is on its own page, and all text is centered on those pages. Here are a few examples (note: I’ve inserted the asterisks, simply to indicate separation between distinct poems):


My shoes are under the table.



The telephone just rang.



Today is Thursday.

These Fagin/Saroyan minimal poems appear gnomic, yet their truths, if terse, are not readily apparent. In fact, the relationship between any particular title and its paired sentence seems deeply hidden. These qualities, of course, are precisely what makes these poems so great (and funny too).



Are you still with me? Well, thank you very much. There’s still an endnote you may find interesting, and then the scans of some great Saroyan book covers and other stuff (once again, allow me to recommend the Berrigan introduction to IN).

As for all that’s said above regarding Saroyan’s minimal poetry in its full maximal resplendent glory, I think what I wrote near the top of this post ought to be repeated, if only because I believe it deeply, and find it so fun to type:



Endnote and a Collection of Scans:

1. Some of the reviews received by Aram Saroyan Complete Minimal Poems include (click on each listing to be taken to it): Ian Daly, in Poetry Foundation on-line (August 2007); Curtis Faville, in Jacket 34 (October 2007); Alex Jovanovich, in Art Lies 55 (Fall 2007); Patrick James Dunagan, in Galatea Resurrects 8 (November 2007); Ron Silliman, on his blog, announcing the book as his selection for the William Carlos Williams Award (April 18, 2008); readers on from New Zealand and Japan (spring 2008); Richard Hell, in the New York Times (April 27, 2008); Paul L. Martin, schoolteacher, on his blog (May 2008); Joshua Cohen, in The Jewish Daily Forward (June 2008); Andrew Rippeon, in ArtVoice (August 2008); Michael Ford, on his blog (a minimal (three word!) review) (November 2008); and, Larry Bedikian, in The Armenian Report (November 7, 2008).



Intro: The scans below do not repeat those found in the blog post above. For listed book dimensions, height precedes width. With regard to book content, it should not be assumed that each publication shown below contains work unique to it. Saroyan often re-published work, particularly from limited chapbook editions to the trade editions; thus, a poem that appeared in one of the earlier books below might also have appeared in two or three other later books.

[subtitle on title page: A collection of eight poems]
(La Grande, Oregon: bear press, 1966)
8.5" x 5.5"
[150 signed and numbered copies]
[introduction by Ted Berrigan]
[two poems not included in the Ugly Duckling]

The Berrigan introduction is a terrific, special, wondrous thing. I’ve tried to super-size the scan below, but if you can’t make it out, be sure to click on it to open it up super-large on a new page:


[subtitle on title page: 24 POEMS]

(No place: LINES, 1967)
7.5" x 5.5"
[all minimal poems, one of which is not included in the Ugly Duckling]
[book dedicated, “To Clark Coolidge”]
[all text within book printed in red]


(LONDON: Goliard Press, Christmas 1966)

5.5" x 6.5"

[13 minimal poems, all included in the Ugly Duckling]


coffee coffee
(New York: 0 to 9, 1967)

11" x 8.5"
[all minimal poems]
[see blog-post above re: those not included in the Ugly Duckling]

[a re-print edition was recently published by Primary Information in New York]


Align Center
(No place: LINES, 1967)

8" x 5.25"
[all minimal poems, one of which is not included in the Ugly Duckling]


(New York: Random House, 1968)
11" x 8"

[there was both a hardcover with dust-jacket, and a softcover edition]
[entirely minimal poems, all included in the Ugly Duckling]


(New York: Random House, 1969)
8.25" x 5.5"
[there was both a hardcover with dust-jacket, and a softcover edition]
[entirely minimal poems, all included in the Ugly Duckling]

The back cover of PAGES reproduces a typewritten statement by Saroyan that emphasizes the importance of his typewriter to his poetry; he calls his machine “the biggest influence” on his work (click to enlarge):

This back cover statement on poetics is echoed by, and amplified in, something Saroyan wrote regarding his minimal work just a few years after the above, and which he included at page 82 in his The Street: An Autobiographical Novel (Lenox, MA: Bookstore Press, 1974):
“I was the typewriter, the typewriter itself, I guess. [¶] I was letting it come through me . . . Not like I had written it myself. It was more like it had been beamed to me from outer space, the only person availble at a typewriter who didn’t have some predetermined use in mind for it. [¶] The only person in New York or the whole world honestly ready to write a one-word poem.”

(no place: Barn Dream Press, 1970)

3" x 4"

300 copies

[not included in the Ugly Duckling]

[a second edition of 3,000 copies was done for BOX (a quarterly), 1971]
[a third edition of 400 copies was done in 2000 by Granary Press of New York]


(New York: Telegraph Books, 1971)

7.5" x 4.75"

[approximately 100 pages of minimal poems, all included in the Ugly Duckling]


(Philadephia: Telegraph Books, no date (but 1971 or 1972)

5.5" x 4.25"
[includes “seven answers” by Saroyan (i.e., answers to questions),
seven minimal poems (all previously published)]

Some of the information in the “answers” concerns minimal poem-making, including this illuminating discussion of method (lower case in original):
“i did lots of different experiments. one way of writing, for instance . . . was to sit at my desk and listen to whatever noises i heard and try to make poems out of them. or whatever i saw, literally at my desk, try to make a poem out of it.”


Day By Day
(New Orleans: Fell Swoop 61, no date [but in or after 1979])
[each poem individually dated, all in 1973, and all in Saroyan's holograph]

11" x 8.5"
[cover image: “The Pink Shell” (1979), by Gailyn Saroyan]
[see blog text above re: minimal poems not included in the Ugly Duckling]


Saturday, March 21, 2009

someone had to do it (sorry Walt) . . .


O SELF I sin—a imp, a son;
Yet the word       ,    the word ass.

O top to toe I sin;
Not alone, nor bra on, or for the Muse,
—I say he or om is or far;
The Female equally with the Male I sin.

O if men pass, pulse, and pow,
Cheer—or free act or under law
The Mode Ma I sin.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

March Madness . . .

Poets and Basketball

Bernadette Mayer & Anne Waldman
The Basketball Article

(Angel Hair Books, 1975 [first edition])

(Angel Hair Books, 1978 [second edition])

(Shark Books, 2006 [third edition])

Let me start with a fast-break outlet pass of a claim: while there’s plenty of well known or seriously interesting poems in whole or in part about baseball, there’s hardly any such poems about basketball.

And by “hardly any” I really mean “almost none.”

For baseball, there are – just off the top of my head – poems by Marianne Moore, Richard Brautigan, Jack Spicer, and Ferlinghetti, two entire collections of such poems by Tom Clark, and of course Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat.” And then there are the poet-baseball projects like Yo-Yos With Money (Ted Berrigan and Harris Schiff) and Sports (Kenneth Goldsmith), which I wrote about last year (click through to go).

But when it comes to basketball poems, dang if I can think of any. Unless I’ve shot an airball here (and please let me know if I have), maybe it has to be concluded that the particular pace and grace of hoops just doesn’t inspire poets in the same way as “The National Pastime.”

However, there is a notable exception: The Basketball Article, a 1975 collaboration by Bernadette Mayer and Anne Waldman. This prose piece of approximately fifteen mostly long paragraphs was a commissioned and written as a piece of magazine journalism. But after the two poets turned it in, editors rejected it. The two then that same year had it published separately, as a stapled-at-the-sides 8.5 by 11 inch chapbook (the original edition had only 100 copies and is now rare; the 2006 re-print is available, at only five bucks!). I consider The Basketball Article a kind of prose poem, and a mighty fine one at that.

The Basketball Article is a prose poem for at least two reasons. First is its mode of presentation. Mayer and Waldman approach their subject mostly indirectly, to say the least. One paragraph begins, “We sit down to watch a few Knicks games.” There then follows not a summary of the games seen, or even a description of highlights, but observations about the alcohol preferences of a team’s general manager, a comment about what somebody said regarding whether a particular player likes to fuck, statements about Bill Walton, the FBI, and Patty Hearst, sentences about the two poets’ refusal to stand for the national anthem, athletes’ reading habits, or lack thereof, and at least a half-dozen other matters. Obviously, straight-forward theme topic sentence paragraphic development isn’t the approach here at all. Instead, Mayer and Waldman go the way of associational, juxtapositional, or (if you wanna keep it simple) experimental poetic writing.

Another quality that’s almost purely poetic is the range of matters covered by the two writers and the speed at which those matters appear. New allusions and topics often burst forth out of every sentence. Mayer and Waldman give us you-are-there court-side observational stuff (the cursing of the players, their size, where they stash their gum, etc.), the strangeness of arenas in which the pro game is played (like something out of Godard’s Alphaville, they say, “an end-of-the-world city on another planet where people say yes when they mean no and no when they mean yes”), the difference between New Jersey and NYC spectators, and a theory that Aztecs, not James Naismith, invented the game. They give us Oscar Robertson (the “Big O”), a bit about street ball at the legendary Sixth Ave and Fourth Street court in the Village, a long riff on what happens when men and women play hoops together (including the significance of female breasts therein), thoughts concerning how pro players’ mesmerizing grace gets institutionalized, a mention of the electro-galvanic stimulator the Nets bought for Julius Erving’s knees, and lots lots more. The article-poem is so all over and has such a heavy specific-density, all in a weird-terrific kind of way, it’s no wonder it works so well as prose-poetry.

My favorite part of The Basketball Article is a paragraph in which Mayer and Waldman suggest combining poetry and basketball, and riff on how such a contest-game might be played:
We imagine a great conference of poets with trainers, doctors and coaches, keeping them in fine physical and mental shape. We wonder what their work would be like. Attendance 20,239. The poets perform in gym suits, showing their long lean legs and muscular shoulders. The older poets comment on the game or go into business. One poet is the center, there are two forwards and two guards but anyone can score. The center, generally, must simply try to get the words away from the opposing team of poets and the guards bring them down-court to be used. [. . .] Some poets are booed for using the language awkwardly, others cheered for coming up with a new style of play. [. . .] A foul is called on any poet who deranges the language. A poet in a state of ecstasy makes a 3-point play. Fouled in the act of writing by personal insults, the poet would go to the line.
I love the double-meaning of “line” in the last sentence, and love the whole idea. Forgive me (here comes the “March Madness” part of this), but Mayer and Waldman’s imagined game got me thinking: if there were such a game as the two imagined, who would I want on my fantasy team of poet-hoopsters, and why? Just limiting it to poets, dead or alive, who published work after about 1950, and putting on the roster as many currently active poets as possible, here’s who I came up with:

At center, out of Black Mountain College, Charles Olson! This can’t be much of a surprise, eh? Olson literally was a towering figure at six feet, seven inches and a modernist slam-dunker of the most powerful kind. In addition, his obvious nickname here – “Maximus,” natch – has a marvelous poet-gladiator ring that seems certain to intimidate opponents and fire-up the fans’ imagination.

As for point guard, have you seen how Jessica Smith puts words and letters all over the page, in her collections bird-book (2001) and Organic Furniture Cellar (2006)? Here’s an example from the latter book (click on image to enlarge):

Smith with her words really opens up the poem-court and spreads the poem-floor. That’s exactly perfect for creating all kinds of lanes and spaces for poem-ball passes and give-and-go metaphor action with her poet team-mates, and to draw the spectators into the action.

I’d also sign up Langston Hughes, the Hughes of the 1951 collection Montage of a Dream Deferred. Yes, that collection when published and mostly ever since has been criticized as overly sentimental and too naive. But man the rhythms in there, the be-bop energy, the swing and jive and blues, the bits of Harlem street-life, all would I think score big in this imagined hoop-poem game. He’s my shooting guard.

One of pro basketball’s greatest all-time players was known as “The Mailman” because game after game, year after year, he “delivered” points and rebounds no matter what. For this kind of high caliber consistency, I gotta go with Ron Silliman. In this respect, his five or six blog posts a week are merely emblematic of something much larger: see his the Alphabet (1000 plus pages collecting poems written and mostly published over the last almost thirty years), The Age of Huts (over 300 pages with even more poetry from the same general period), and Tjanting (a bit over 200 pages), for truly prodigious examples of how Silliman for decades has brought it poetically day after day after day. Also: Ron’s not afraid to throw his elbows. He’d make an excellent poet-power forward.

Rounding out the starting five is Lisa Jarnot at small forward. Anyone remember Jamaal (aka Keith) Wilkes, the superb college and pro player from a few decades ago? On the court, Wilkes was so friggin’ natural and smooth in all parts of the game that he was known as “Silk.” Jarnot’s writing is marked by that same kind of natural grace and splendor (see her Night Scenes (Flood Editions, 2008)). Of course, Wilkes worked hard to make it seem easy and it surely is the same with Jarnot. Also, if you’re a regular reader of LisaBlog, you know that Jarnot can throw a few elbows herself, if necessary.

So okay that’s the starting five, and it’s a beautiful group. But all teams need a strong bench, and the exceptional squads – think here of the 1974-1975 NBA champion Golden State Warriors – use all 12 people on the roster. My “sixth man” would be John Olson. That guy, poetically speaking, can light it up. I’d also add Garrett Caples – as his Complications (Meritage Press, 2007) shows, he brings a street-honed and PhD smart hip-hop verve to his word-play – and Lew Welch, who in addition to having almost peerless poem-making skills could run the court better than about anyone (Welch in sixth grade was county champion in the 50 yard dash and in college ran the quarter-mile in under 50 seconds).

And then there are the substitutes who because of their unique characteristics create serious match-up problems for the opposing team, the way that for example Manute Bol, one of basketball’s tallest players ever at 7' 7", or Muggsy Bogues, the NBA’s all-time shortest (5' 3"), would create havoc when they came on the court. Well, when it comes to poet-players who would confound the opposition with their uniquely brilliant poem-shots, I’d pick Susan Howe (particularly for her overlaid, tipped, upside-down and half-effaced texts, as in “Thorow” (click to see!)) and Aram Saroyan for his mind-blowing minimal poems (e.g., “eyeye”). Those two would keep folks off-balance in wonderfully different but similarly effective ways.

Rodrigo Toscano and Katie Degentesh would round out my fantasy poet-ball team. Word-energy seems to burst from these two and, among other things, both can also make a high percentage of damn funny poem-shots. Here’s a sentence from Toscano’s “Welcome To Ominum Dignitatem” in To Leveling Swerve (Krupskaya 2004) (note: all CAPS in original):
And here’s the choice opening stanza of Degentesh’s “Sometimes I Feel As If I Must Injure Either Myself Or Someone Else,” from her conceptual flarf (and so much more) collection The Anger Scale (Combo Books 2006):
We are nearing the time when Christ is come
to make recordings for the blind and dyslexic
in Hawaii, and sees nothing but very plain prose.
The dear little devoted fellow! He worshiped that kitten.
The creative biting (satirical) and/or prankster-goof humor of these two poet-hoopsters would be great for team chemistry, both on and off the court, and the two would score points with their work too.

Quite a roster, eh? Hire William Carlos Williams as the team doctor, and we’re ready to go full-court with anyone. Anywhere, anytime.

Let’s run!

End note: The scan of the top of this post is of the original Angel Hair Books edition of The Basketball Article. The photo on that cover also appears on the Shark Books edition that is currently in print and available (only five bucks, click here!). The youngish man in the photo is Bill Walton, famous basketball player. My research suggests that the woman next to Walton is Micki Scott, the long-time partner (and eventually wife) of Jack Scott, and that the photo was taken at a 1975 press conference involving the Scotts, Walton and the FBI search at the time for then-fugitive Patty Hearst. Although The Basketball Article touches very briefly upon Walton and Hearst and the FBI search, I hypothesize the photo was used on the cover because of its poetic impact (check out the intensity of Walton’s eye and Scott’s close-lipped, see-through-you look) and because it features a woman looking at a man-hoopster, an image that mirrors what happens in the book: women looking at (writing about) the male-only sport of professional basketball.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Better Late Than Never

The Golden Anniversary:
(a few months late)
First Ten Books of the White Rabbit Press

A few months ago marked the 50th anniversary of the end of a storybook run of poetry chapbooks put out by a small press. I haven’t been able to find any special notice of that fact anywhere on the web. So here goes, a bit late but definitely necessary: a celebration of the first ten books of the White Rabbit Press, published between November 1957 and September 1958.

When I say “a storybook run of . . . chapbooks,” I mean it. As first told in the White Rabbit Press bibliography (published by Poltroon Press, 1985), and expanded upon in Poet Be Like God (Wesleyan University Press, 1998), the first ten chapbooks came about in a way that brings a smile to my mind every time I think of it, and which should inspire anyone who wants to bring poetry books into the world.

The joy here comes not simply because Jack Spicer was the main impetus behind the press (he wanted to publish himself and others in his Magic Workshop circle), nor because Robert Duncan and his partner the artist Jess Collins were major energizers (Duncan drew the pressmark, pictured above). Those facts, while important, aren’t what resonates most deeply fifty years later.

What’s really special, and inspiring, is the do-it-yourself (DIY) low-budget White Rabbit ethos, that brought the poetry into the world. Joe Dunn, the man who actually printed the books, first went (at Spicer’s urging) to secretary school at night to learn to operate commercial printers. To me, going to night school, or holding a second job, defines self-initiative: folks who take time to learn something different while the rest of us are at home, out socializing or at work.

Dunn then got a job doing printing (flyers, schedules, and so on) at the Greyhound Bus Lines in San Francisco. After hours and on weekends, and with the permission of his immediate supervisor but apparently without the knowledge of others at Greyhound, Dunn used the company’s printer to lithograph the sheets for the first ten White Rabbit chapbooks directly from the poets’ typescript or holograph. The sheets were then assembled communally in small (tiny, really) editions of approximately 200 copies (except for one book, which had 500 copies) and, with one exception, bound that way too, using needle and thread.

In this way, White Rabbit serves as an example for the ages of how poverty poetry publishing can happen, particularly when actual hard-copy put-em-on-a-shelf books are desired.

The books that came about are charmers. The first ten White Rabbit titles are essentially the same size – basically, 8.5" by 6.5" – and with one exception quite thin (between 6 and 20 pages). All have hand-illustrated and/or hand-lettered covers, several done by Jess and a couple designed by Duncan. The books, as the Poltroon bibliography puts it, “though not ‘fine printing,’ are of an artistically high standard . . . .” And the poetry, for the most part, is too.

Because so few copies of each title were printed, and distribution was quite limited, it’s very difficult today to find complete sets of the first ten White Rabbit chapbooks. Most of the ten can still be bought used. However, that’s not an option for most. Prices currently range from around $75 to $150 for the more common, less-in-demand of the books, to $300 or more for certain others, and (believe it or not) around $2,000 for the title most in demand.

Presumably, there are some poets and readers from late 1950s San Francisco who bought them all at the time, and still have them, and there no doubt are a few odd collectors who have over the years gathered all ten. But such folks are hard to find and are unlikely to want to share their treasures. Then there are the university rare book collections. But even there the pickings are slim. According to my research on WorldCat, only about twenty libraries have any of the first ten White Rabbit titles, and fewer than that have them all.

So, in celebration of the passing of 50 years, and in tribute to the DIY publishing that resulted in these important and enduring chapbooks, here are the first ten White Rabbit titles, in order of publication. Brief comments are included below each image. Clicking on each image will enlarge it, in a new window:

Love, the Poem, the Sea & Other Pieces Examined
Steve Jonas
(November 1957)

Some (click here) call Jonas a “neglectorino,” and if so, perhaps that makes this, his first book, a neglectorinosity. It’s a single poem of four parts, or four short poems, over seven pages. I love this set of lines, from part ii, which seemingly accurately prophesize America’s direction, and I think criticize it too:
                    . . . men are no longer interested
in the sea of their minds
                    they have visions of other worlds
accurately numbered
                    they visit them daily in papers and
                    in the meantime plan
                            Within a decade to
         shoot the moon.
Also cool: the way words and images (the sea, birds, grass) re-appear one section to another, and this, from the final section, an assertion that must be considered key to the poetics of Spicer, Duncan and most all great poets:
I did not intend a serious poem but the Poem
                    has a will all its own.

After Lorca
Jack Spicer

(November-December 1957)

This is a justly revered book of translations, original work passed off as translations, and a faux introduction and letters that double (and triple) as prose poems and statements on poetics. It’ll cost you several hundred bucks for a copy, but if you like Spicer, it’s essential.

Essential because After Lorca as re-printed in the Black Sparrow Collected Books or last year’s Wesleyan Collected Spicer, is NOTHING like the original. It’s not just that the subsequent Collected editions don’t have the gorgeous cover by Jess, with its striking illustration and red lettering (the Wesleyan has a tiny black-and-white reproduction). The huge problem with the subsequent Collected editions – it’s almost a travesty – is the failure to duplicate either the book’s typography or the text’s placement on the page.

The White Rabbit After Lorca was litho-ed from typewritten sheets. Each poem and letter begins at the top of a page, regardless of where the previous poem (or letter) ended. Thus, each work has its own space-page integrity. The effect on the letters in particular, because they are typewritten – including uneven right-side margins -- is profound. The letters in the White Rabbit After Lorca actually look like something someone (Spicer) would or did actually type out and then send. Yes, it’s an illusion, but it’s perfectly executed and the energy within the informal-looking but mind-blowing letters, each specially set off at the top of a page, is something else.

In contrast, the Black Sparrow and Wesleyan editions do up After Lorca in a slick printing fashion. The typescript font is replaced with something more modern. The letters get further gussied up with fully-justified margins both left and right. And all the work, including the letters, begins immediately after the text that comes before: there’s no starting each piece at the top of a separate page. Compared to the original, it’s poor, almost odious. Sure, Spicer’s words, lines, and sentences are all there, but his writing, especially the letters, seems entombed alive.

No ill-will towards the people who did this to Spicer’s work, but why? It appears those “in charge” either never thought about what they were doing, or were too embarrassed to say anything about it. In both the Black Sparrow and Wesleyan books, the editors take time to emphasize that they preserved Spicer’s “orthography” (his sometimes odd spellings). But those same editors never mention the changes to how After Lorca actually looks on the page. It’s as if they believed that the look of the work on the page was some mere coincidence having nothing to do with Spicer’s intentions. What a shame.

Anyway, let’s celebrate Spicer’s achievement. Here’s a great paragraph from one of the letters (at page 19), with original line breaks preserved:
         I yell “Shit” down a cliff at an ocean.
Even in my lifetime the immediacy of that word
will fade. It will be dead as “Alas”. But if
I put the real cliff and the real ocean into
the poem, the word “Shit” will ride along with
them, travel the time-machine until cliffs and
oceans disappear.
After Lorca had a print run of 500 copies, by far the largest of White Rabbit’s first ten. At about 70 total pages, including preliminaries, it’s also by far the longest of the first ten. The book, in design, production, and content, is a masterpiece.


Five Poems
Denise Levertov
(January 1958)

The title describes the contents. Cover and two drawings within by Jess. Good line that I like to remember (it’s repeated twice in “Seems Like We Must Be Somewhere Else”):
If we’re here let’s be here now.

The Wapitis
Ebbe Borregaard

(January 1958 )

Neither Borregaard nor this book (which consists of three poems centering on “wapiti” (also and more commonly known as elk) are much remembered today, even though the first of the poems here was included in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960). (An exception: Ron Silliman, in the third section of his poem “For Larry Eigner, Silent” (in VOG, which in turn can be found in the Alphabet) has a sentence that in part quotes from Borregaard:
Odd how, after 30 years, a phrase such as “the beauty     wapiti” still rings in the mind.
I think it’s the rhythm of that phrase that makes it stick, that and the internal rhyme and the oddity of “wapiti.” Poetic rhythms and unusual vocabulary, perhaps not surprisingly, are the strengths of the book’s poems as a whole. There are mostly long, long lines (all the way across the page), and many unfamiliar words: “dolorosa,” “cuckoopoint,” “stames,” “wastrel” “vatrix” “wolfsbane,” “pico,” and “heterogenesis” show up in just the first nine lines! You gotta love those weird words!

The cover of this book is by Robert Duncan. I believe it uses Greek letters to spell out the poet’s name and title.


The Love Root
George Stanley

(March 1958)

The title poem, one of about a half-dozen in the book, is dedicated to Duncan. It has eight stanzas, mostly consisting of very short sentences, linebreaked, with a bit of extra space between the sentence-ending periods and the start of the next. Many stanzas are quite evocative. Here’s one:
S-curve.      Counterfeast.
From the bridge you are going
over now, night.      Leftward, a bridge.
A bridge to the right.      A salt
tongue in the air.      And verbana, rinsing
the glass eye.      Thick boy is
drowning.      Jewels rise,
drowning.      A fish runs sleek and handy
under the lip of the world.
And oh yes and as you probably guessed: all text in The Love Root is litho-ed in purple!


Faust Foutu -- Act 1
Robert Duncan

(March 1958)

The first of four parts of this play, which, per the book, was produced as a dramatic reading at King Ubu’s Gallery, San Francisco, in 1954, starring, among others, Duncan, Spicer, Mike McClure, (filmmaker) Larry Jordan, Ida Hodes, Helen Adam, and Jess. Think of a cast party with those poet-players!


The Bird Poems
Harold Dull
(May 1958)

Yep, five short poems about birds. And no, they are not dull. Yet neither do they as a whole soar. But there are moments. For example, between poem IV and V is a coupon that the reader could cut out along dotted lines, which prompts the reader to send the poet “dollars” to buy paper, with the reader’s signature verifying an understanding that paper “means as much to” Dull “as the sea does to the gull.” The book’s colophon provides the poet’s address, and states that coupons be sent there. How cool is that?!


The Galilee Hitch-Hiker
Richard Brautigan

(May 1958)

A typically marvelous and hilarious Brautigan nine-poem sequence, with Baudelaire the central figure in each. If I typed my favorite parts I’d type the whole dang book. But, okay, the first poem, which gives the book its title, has Baudelaire driving a Model A across Galilee and picking up a hitch-hiking Jesus:
“Where are you
going?” asked
Jesus, getting
into the front
“Anywhere, anywhere
out of this world!”
shouted Baudelaire.
“I’ll go with you
as far as
said Jesus.
There’s another few lines, but you get the idea: how brilliant is that Baudelaire quote?

The seventh poem in the sequence, titled “A Baseball Game” (hey, were are deep into spring training, aren't we?), is another flat-out great one, and begins:
Baudelaire went
to a baseball game
and bought a hot dog
and lit a pipe
of opium.
The remainder of the poem carries forth the promise of that opening, I assure you. The entire poem sequence has been re-printed in a couple Brautigan collections, and is available on the web, at a page devoted to the book in the exceptional on-line Brautigan bibliography (click here and scroll to the middle of the page).

Of the first ten White Rabbit authors, Brautigan has attained the most widespread recognition and fervent fans. The Galilee Hitch-Hiker was his first solely-authored published book, and only 200 copies were printed. For these reasons, the title is now a serious challenge for the collector, to say the least. Copies are genuinely rare, and when available are priced at around two grand each. Wow!


The Queen O’ Crow Castle
Helen Adam

Adam’s medium-length Scots-style narrative ballad is told mostly in rhymed couplets. A man named Callastan loves a Queen, but so too did seven husbands before him, each of whom is now “ashes and dust.” What happens, you ask? All I can say is, I hate those fuckin’ crows. Cover and drawings within by Jess.


O’Ryan 2 4 6 8 10
Charles Olson

(September 1958)

The book prints the five even-numbered poems of what was a ten-poem sequence (in 1965, White Rabbit published the entire sequence). The cover is by Jess, and a rarely seen variant to that pictured above featured blue ink and silver sparkles.

The poems are intensely conversational in tone, raw and even brutal, and powerful. Almost miraculously, a somewhat but not impossibly hiss-filled tape-recording exists of Olson reading these exact poems at San Francisco State in 1957, the year before their publication (click here to go to the PennSound Olson page, the "O’Ryan Poems" are Track 11 (the last one) under the 1957 reading near the top of the page). The poems were the final thing Olson read that day, and take a listen: the crowd, not surprisingly, really goes for them (click here to go to the Penn Sound page with this track!).


End Note: After a four year hiatus, White Rabbit in 1962 began again to publish poetry, mostly printed by Graham Mackintosh. More than 50 additional books were published under the imprint, most in the 1960s but continuing through the mid-1970s with one title in 1981. See Johnston, Alastair, A Bibliography of the White Rabbit Press (Berkeley: Poltroon Press, 1985). See also, Ellingham, Lewis and Killian, Kevin, Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (Wesleyan University Press, 1998).