Saturday, August 4, 2007
History Project part 2
This material was written about five or six years ago for the History Project at the DC Poetry homepage. The questions in italics were given to various poets who had been involved in the DC scene.
4) what was the kind and level of activity in the scene? who was your audience? who were the featured out-of-town visitors? what were the big events? what kinds of interactions were going on among the community's members?
The poetry scene in DC around 1973-74 was very intense. On the one hand, there was the obvious manifestation of values associated with alternative culture regarding anti-war politics, civil rights, gender and sexual politics. On the other hand, there was the obvious continuation of traditions documented in the monumental New American Poetry anthology of 1960. And, clearly, the two hands were joined. It was fun for a dumb-ass Brit like me, although I was never a part of the Mass Transit scene, except vicariously through Pete. I did attend a couple of the readings, and got a taste of the culture, but nothing more than that. The audience for poetry at that time, and, indeed, the poets themselves, extended beyond the literary mileau. It was all peace and love and sharing, man. And, reporting from what I heard back then, occasional orgies in the back room at the Community Bookstore. I don’t know if that counts as “interaction among the community members.” There was so much energy. I don’t remember any big events other than Michael Sappol smacking himself in the head with a metal napkin-holder after his third tequila one evening at the Li Hi Bar & Grill because the waitress would not acknowledge his existence. Maybe it was his fourth tequila. I know that John Ashbery was a significant visitor, reading at the Pyramid Gallery, but that was before I’d arrived. And Ted Greenwald, likewise, after I’d arrived. Dupont Circle in those (pre-subway) days was a kind of miniature Greenwich Village. Low rents, lots of students, arty types and general transient folk, and everybody was part of the same project, seemed like. You could sit all day at Schwarz’s Drugstore lunch counter at the corner of Connecticut and “R” (now a Starbucks site), and you’d more than likely see everybody you knew. Really, when you walked down Connecticut Avenue between Florida Avenue and Dupont Circle, you’d be greeting people all the time. There was a tremendous sense of community, and the poetry scene was an integral part of that.
Joan Retallack has given a definitive account of all this in her “About Mass Transit: The Dupont Circle Circle,” published in the Washington Review in 1988, and now online at the DC poetry homepage (see links).
One of the things that defined the poetry scene then, through the Folio period and to this day, was that it was relatively small. There were just three factions: the academically based poets, the African-American poets, and the Mass Transit poets – with some overlap in all directions. The Mass Transit/Dupont Circle group wasn’t big enough to allow factions to develop within itself, other than at a microscopic level – i.e., a few people complaining to each other about this and that. The diversity of the scene was evident both socially and in terms of poetics.
In those days, the “academically based poets” were the mainstream poets. And there was no lack of hostility in either direction (i.e., between “mainstream” and “alternative”), although there were also poets in academia who maintained their independence from the various “scenes” – David McAleavey being a good example.
The thing I loved about the Mass Transit scene was that it was in some respects very non-literary, even anti-literary. That got lost, which was too bad.
The Li Hi Bar & Grill is now Au Pied de Cochon. (And, since I wrote that, has closed, I believe.)
5) what were the gender, race, and class dynamics involved in the community at the time?
As more of an occasional observer than participant, my sense was that the Mass Transit scene was dominated by radical gay politics. Certainly, issues concerning the gay community were in the foreground.
In general, gender politics were kind of schizoid. Mucho preaching, poco practice. Peter Inman was a miltant feminist from the get-go, in every respect. Some of us guys were retards. I’d been raised by a divorced mother in a time and place where a divorced woman was invariably regarded with contempt, and I saw what my mother suffered. Also, I was around women more than men in my family life and for the first ten years of my working life (two department stores, one supermarket). I was a feminist before I knew such a thing existed, but that didn’t stop me from being a retard. Hope you don’t mind a little autobiographical data.
As for race, there was some feeling of racial unity in the poetry scene, even though there was a separate band of African-American poets. Ahmos Zu-Bolton and E. Ethelbert Miller were connected with the Mass Transit scene, and Gaston Neal, Joanne Jimason, Adesanya Alakoye, Connie Carter, Robert Hinton, and Larry Neal were all on the scene throughout the remainder of the decade (along with Ethelbert). I don’t mean to deny any divisions here – I’m sure they were real, and acute. But there was a lot more inter-racial closeness practiced then than there is now.
As for class, all I can say is say is that a lot of people were very earnest and well meaning. Certainly, there was a good deal of rhetoric regarding class back then. Probably, I have too much baggage for this one.
6) was there at all a sense amongst yourselves of factors or qualities that made the scene identifiable with the place that is d.c.? a style of writing, a set of concerns, editorial stances, etc.? similarly, was there at all a sense of the same held by outsiders looking in?
For (at least) the past 34 years DC has been a strong base for alternative poetry, although the early and mid-80’s were kind of dry. Obviously, there’s been a connection with the language poetry scene, dating back at least as far as the fourth issue of James Sherry’s Roof magazine (1977). James included in that issue a DC “forum”, with representative work by Tina Darragh, Lynne Dreyer, P. Inman, Douglas Messerli, Phyllis Rosenzweig, Diane Ward, Bernard Welt, Terence Winch, myself, and two Baltimore poets, Kirby Malone and Marshall Reese. Other than that, it’s just been a hotbed of brilliant, imaginative writing, and I’d be surprised if anyone in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Chicago didn’t think so, not to mention New York, Chattanooga or Duluth, wherever.
7) d.c. has never really gotten the attention it deserves in the histories of alternative poetry that are being or have been written (e.g., language poetry as an almost purely bicoastal (nyc-sf) phenomenon); do you agree or disagree, and why do you think that is (not) the case?
Yawn. It’s a good question, but exclusion fantasies are not my forte. I can best answer in terms of individual poets. In a curious way, Michael Lally has always been under-appreciated. Partly his own doing, maybe. Of those poets connected to the language “school” – Lynne Dreyer is a little under-appreciated, maybe because of limited publication. Joan Retallack was under-appreciated for the longest time, but surely isn’t anymore. P. Inman is under-appreciated to a degree that I find ridiculous. Of the poets less centrally connected to the language movement, Terry Winch is severely under-appreciated, and Beth Joselow has received little recognition, which is also a joke. Just for the record – I do not feel under-appreciated myself. Terry and Beth have missed out by not being attached to a particular movement. It’s the reverse side of the coin regarding the smallness of the DC scene. Lynne and Joan and Tina all benefited from the recent feminist revisionism of alternative poetry, which was long overdue. I guess Terry awaits the Irish American Poets Tangentially Connected to the Language School with one Foot in the New York School anthology, Pete the Grumpy Modernist Purists anthology, and Beth the Radical Moms with Bad Attitudes anthology. Then, there’d be the Blank Anthology, with empty pages to indicate the non-publication strategies of Phyllis Rosenzweig and yours truly.
Fact is, with the ascendancy of language poetry and post-language poetry came the renewed ascendancy of theory and criticism, not a bad thing in itself, but it did drive alternative poetry back into academia, about which I have mixed feelings. I am in agreement with Ron Silliman’s claim that America has undergone a poetry renaissance the like of which has never been seen before. There are so many poets now. Some express this as a complaint. I do not. I dig it, man. More about this, later,
8) what were the limitations of the scene or community? things that you felt should have been done that weren't, etc.
Regarding the Mass Transit era, I don’t know. There were some divisions, personality conflicts, personal differences, political antagonisms and criticisms of which I was aware, but nothing worth recording here. And there could have been more documentation, more photography, film, audio, more publications, more written history, more taped oral history.
9) was there a moment at which the community or scene as you knew it began to change, for better or worse? took off in exciting new directions or fell flat on its face unable to get up?
There have been four significant points of change, so far. The first came with the ending of the Mass Transit era, 1974-1975, and Michael Lally’s departure to New York. 1975 was a year of transition. The second came with the formal start of the Folio Reading Series in 1976, although there had been readings by DC poets there during1975. The third came with the ending of the Folio Reading Series and the closing of the bookstore in 1978. And the fourth with the gradual advent of the next generation in the second half of the 1980s into the early 1990s, first with Rod Smith and Joe Ross, then with Buck Downs and Mark Wallace and the rest of the crew. The one “worse” part was that long dry spell between the late 1970s and the late 1980s, but that was only about ten years. Flat on its face and unable to get up? Pretty much. “Exciting new directions?” That was what came next. Aerial/Edge, Bridge Street Books, In Your Ear, Ruthless Grip and everything else. One other recognition is due: the work Rick Peabody did with Gargoyle (beginning in 1976) was a sustaining element through the down phase, even though he had never seemed to have any direct interest in the events around Mass Transit and Folio Books.
Here’s a short poem from back in the day:
DC poet's lament
Nobody thinks I’m Peabody
Peabody thinks I’m nobody
The photograph above is from a little later in the day, a benefit reading at Folio Books in 1977, with Lally, Winch, Lang & Dreyer all in plain sight.