Thursday, August 9, 2007

Michael Lally

It’s a commonplace that the two great literary subjects of the 20th century were sex and the self. I think of Michael Lally as a Beat poet, essentially, devoted to the investigation of the self and of sexuality in the context of everything. His work as a whole may be read as an ongoing autobiography, the confessions of an American poet. It is revealing, often raw, full of self-mythologizing, self-praise, self-doubt, attitude, discourse, speculation, exhortation, and a whole lot more. The last book that I read of Michael’s is Of, a book-length (100 pages) poem, which reminded me of another commonplace, this one about novelists: that the novelist brings to each novel everything they know and think and feel about the world, and that they embark on a journey during which they will learn more. Of seemed not just a restatement of previous material, or an extension of familiar themes, although it was both of those, but a new hazard. I do not intend to attempt to tell you Michael’s life-story, because the definitive version is available in his work. Visit his blog (see links) and you will be able to make your own discoveries.

In fact, I believe that the very best introduction to Michael is the anthology he edited, None of the Above: New Poets of the USA, published by The Crossing Press in Trumansburg, New York, 1976. It contain work by 31 poets:
Maureen Owen
Darrell Gray
Ed Cox
Bruce Andrews
Robert Slater
Merrill Gilfillan
David Drum
Philip Lopate
Ron Silliman
Joe Brainard
Bernadette Mayer
Dave Morice
George Mattingly
Joanne Kyger
Ray Di Palma
Patti Smith
Jim Gustafson
Nathan Whiting
Terence Winch
Joe Ribar
Hilton Obenzinger
Lynne Dreyer
Michael Lally
P. Inman
Simon Schuchat
Barbara Baracks
Tim Dlugos
Lorenzo Thomas
Paul Violi
Paula Novotnik
Alice Notley

There were poets in there I’d never heard of. One of two of them I still haven’t heard of. It was a wholly eclectic selection, reflecting Michael’s populist approach to everything, including poetics. There were some jokes at Michael’s expense a few years ago about his claiming to have started “language poetry” – I don’t know that anyone believed that he had made such a claim in any seriousness, but the fact is that six of the poets included in Ron Silliman’s anthology, In the American Tree (1986) were in None of the Above: Silliman, Andrews, Mayer, Di Palma, Dreyer and Inman. Three of them were included in Douglas Messerli’s much less expansive “Language” Poetries (1987): Di Palma, Inman, and Andrews. The fact is that Michael was supporting what would become the “Language Poetry movement” at its onset, and I wouldn’t be surprised if None of the Above was the first anthology in which these poets were published together. There were six poets associated with DC in the anthology: Cox, Winch, Dreyer, Lally, Inman and Dlugos. There was Patti Smith, prior to her music career taking off. There was Joanne Kyger, an associate of the Beats and the California Renaissance. I had been in love with Joanne Kyger since I’d read Descheo Notebook in 1971. The main reason I might have regretted not having done enough to warrant possible inclusion in None of the Above was that I might have been published with Joanne Kyger and my DC friends. Not that the rest of the company was too shabby. However, my first point is this: Michael’s identity extends in all kinds of directions. This anthology reflects his social and political inclinations, as well as his literary interests. And this really was alternative poetry, of many different kinds. Most of the poets in None of the Above would have been extremely unlikely candidates for publication by any of the mainstream publishing houses and presses. My second point is that None of the Above contains Michael’s “My Life,” i.e., his signature as well as his life story to that point, his poetics and his science, his money and his mouth.

( has only one copy of None of the Above available, $22.00.)

Michael is an actor, too (under the name Michael David Lally, due to SAG restrictions). He's been in a bunch of movies and a good deal of television shows, including LA Law, NYPD Blue and Law & Order. My favorite work of his so far was in NYPD Blue, second season, episode 16, UnAmerican Graffiti, in which he played an artist who agreed to testify against some very bad people after witnessing a violent crime. I didn't have to look it up. I have the DVD. His Walter Coy is an unforgettable character, with a convincingly distracted demeanor, explaining his sense of aesthetics to the cops, and then having a huge amount of moral fiber and fortitude . It was very gratifying to see an artist not portrayed as a buffoon, but as a genuinely heroic character. Henry Fonda heroic, not Bruce Willis heroic. There was an excellent 1997 follow-up episode featuring the same character: NYPD Blue, Season 4, Episode 10, My Wild Irish Nose. Michael also had a great bit at the end of the first Deadwood series.

Anyway, Michael is a performer. He’s an actor, he’s a performance-oriented reader, and he’s a performance-oriented writer. Every poem is a performance. Every poem is Michael interacting with his own domain, his connections, his history, his psyche, his ego, his mood, his karma, you name it. What drives him there drives him in the world at large. Whatever that is, it’s the same thing that made him such a force in the DC poetry scene in the 1970s.

I didn’t spend that much time around Michael during my first year in Washington, 1973-1974. It was clear that the radical spirit of the 1960s was thriving still during that time around the Dupont Circle scene, and that there was a huge amount of energy coming out of the alternative poetry community in particular. Michael was at the center of that. He and Terry Winch were the driving forces of Mass Transit and SOUP, with Lee Lally and Ed Cox in support. One of their most important endeavors was the reading series at the Pyramid Gallery across the street from the Community Bookstore on “P” Street, but closer to 21st Street. I did my first ever reading in America at that gallery, Sunday, January 26, 1975, with Paul Violi.

Lally and Winch were Li Po & Tu Fu, Abbott & Costello, Slim 'n' Slam, Ginsberg & Kerouac, Starsky & Hutch, Ren & Stimpey, all rolled into one duo. Aside from Ed Cox, Tim Dlugos, Peter Inman and Lynne Dreyer, other DC poets such as Beth Joselow, Tina Darragh, Bernard Welt and Phyllis Rosenzweig received early support and encouragement from Michael and/or Terry, as did many other poets. Of course, there were plenty of conflicts, issues, disagreements, etceteras, during this era, and Michael was often at the center of them. Issues of power and perceived power always cause divisiveness, even in regard to poetry publications, reading opportunities, and so on. And, also, this was the time in which ideas of “political correctness” (as we now know it) were being formulated. I don’t mean “political correctness” in terms of the zealous application of the letter of the law, as it is now interpreted very often. I mean ideas regarding appropriate behavior, attitudes, and speech, receiving serious consideration and attention. There were always differences in opinion about this, about what was right, about what was the right application, about a lot of things. Everything in the garden was not always lovely. Differences about these things sometimes escalated into personal animosities. Michael was no saint and he did not enjoy universal approval within his own community. And there were some “mainstream” poets, and some poets who were not attached to either the mainstream or the alternative communities, who regarded Michael (and others in the Dupont Circle gang) with hostility. As the 1970s progressed, I found myself to be the subject of this hostility by association, sometimes. Aside from whatever hostility I might have earned directly, that is.

Michael has always been very generous. He has always made things happen. He has made many good things happen for a lot of people, including myself. And he is an amazingly prolific writer. Some of his very early writing was what might be termed experimental, more so than his signature work, which was well established by 1972, when SOUP published The South Orange Sonnets. His signature work was distinct, and remains so. The experimental edge did not disappear from his work. It simply became part of his style of writing, and part of his persona as a poet. A more realized version of that style developed between The South Orange Sonnets (1972) and Rocky Dies Yellow (1975), that was very much his own, very clear and recognizable. Its apotheosis was My Life (1975).

The language in The South Orange Sonnets went beyond the vernacular into a kind of anti-literary version of American speech, and the attitudes it expressed were defiant, in-your-face, and provocative. The language reminded me of what the great American novelist James Jones had devised for his novel, From Here to Eternity, an approximation of raw speech, although Jones’ language represented a particular subculture (the US military), while Michael’s represented his own New Jersey roots and identity. The South Orange Sonnets was an unflinching portrait of Michael’s social context, in which his persona emerged in the form of voice and posture.

The cover of Rocky Dies Yellow shows a still from the 1938 movie, Angels with Dirty Faces; the young street punks who would later become the Bowery Boys are contemplating a newspaper headline announcing the death of James Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan, an Irish American, New York City hood. And it’s all there. Just as the cover of The South Orange Sonnets depicted Michael’s social roots, the cover of Rocky depicted his true cultural roots: the movies in general and Cagney in particular. One high literary effort to accommodate Michael’s work named him the American François Villon, but, no, he was poetry’s Cagney, poetry’s Bowery Boy, a fast talking Irish American tough guy. This was not simply a matter of Michael finding his “voice” in the traditional, literary sense. Michael was an actor long before he was cast in the low-budget horror movie, The Nesting (1981), featuring John Carradine and Gloria Grahame. He was a natural actor. What Michael did was create the perfect role for himself: himself, out of Cagney and company, out of the autobiographical traditions of the Beat Generation, and out of his counterculture experiences. This was an authentic, postmodern moment. The counterculture aspect related to another aspect of the Rocky Dies Yellow: “The meaning of that title and cover for me was that, like Cagney's Rocky Sullivan, I was pretending to be softer and less macho than I thought I really was, so that my kids and all kids wouldn't grow up like we did, with all that tough guy model shit, but instead would be more sensitive to women and gays etc. etc. In other words, the times in which most of Rocky was written, were when feminism and "gay revolution" were first having an impact on me and those I knew."

This “softer” side was evident in the lyrical tendencies of Michael’s work, also. Here is one of the poems from Rocky Dies Yellow:


In the distance called My Father
I rode my innocence down, rode it
down on its hand and knees like
the people whose dance created the world

What do we know about the world
or the distance we create for our personal atmosphere

What we know is the way we fall
when we fall off the little we ride
when we ride away from the things we’re given
to make us forget the things we gave up

How far is it to where my son
will break my bones and dance on them

& here is the first page of My Life:

I ate everything they put in front of me
read everything they put before my eyes
shook my ass, cried over movie musicals
was a sissy and a thug, a punk and an
intellectual, a cocksucker and a mother
fucker, helped create two new people,
paid taxes, voted and served four years
and a few weeks in the United States Air
Force, was courts martialled and tried
civilly, was in jail and in college, kicked
out of college, boy scouts, altar boys
and one of the two gangs I belonged to,
I was suspended from grammar and high
school, arrested at eleven the year I
had my first “real sex” with a woman
and with a boy, I waited nineteen years
to try it again with a male and was sorry
I waited so long, I waited two weeks to
try it again with a woman and was sorry
I waited so long, wrote, poetry and
fiction, political essays, leaflets and
reviews, I was a “jazz” musician and a
dope dealer, taught junior high for two
weeks, high school Upward Bound for two
years, college for four years, I got up
at 5AM to unload trucks at Proctor and
Gamble to put myself through classes
at the University of Iowa, I washed
dishes and bussed tables, swept floors
and cleaned leaders and gutters, washed
windows and panhandled, handled a forty
foot ladder alone at thirteen, wrote
several novels not very good and none
published, published poems and stories
and articles and books of poems, was
reviewed, called “major,” compared to
“The Teen Queens,” mistaken for black,
for gay, for straight, for older, for
younger for bigger for better for richer
for poorer for stupider for smarter for
somebody else

There is so much material that I could write about. I am extremely partial to the two chapbooks Tina Darragh published in her Dry Imager Production series, Malenkov Takes Over and Oomaloom. Malenkov is a twofer, with Tina’s My First Play starting at one end and Malenkov Takes Over at the other, collages in both cases, collage as writing, writing as collage, image as word, word as image. Very cool. Also very cool, Oomaloom, a book of prose, autobiography, poetics, and counterculture history, containing Michael’s famous “The Dress Incident.” Tina Darragh is the greatest publisher ever.

In the Mood is another favorite, and not only because I was one of its publishers, along with Diane Ward, Bernard Welt and our fearless leader, Terence Winch, all of us editors of Titanic Books. In the Mood could have been called “My Poetics.” It’s a tribute to Frank O’Hara. The Titanic edition has a fabulous front cover designed by me. Xeroxed-down-to-pixels photograph of O’Hara, smudgy rubber stamp work for the author’s name and title. Wow.

Some good places to start reading Michael’s work would be Hollywood Magic, published by Dennis Cooper’s Little Caesar in 1982 and containing a lot of poems, including “My Life,” and Can’t Be Wrong, published by Allan Kornblum’s Coffee House Press in 1996, also containing a lot of poems, including "Where Do We Belong" a long poem about Michael's return to Ireland and his clan's roots poem which he also reads on the What You Find There DC (see below). But, really, the Lally oeuvre is outré in all directions, so its all win win.

One of Michael’s strength’s a an actor and as a reader is his voice. There’s a CD available, What You Find There, there’s a recording of a reading Michael gave at the West End Bar, NYC, March 12, 1978, at pennsound (along with the material that’s on the CD):

And there’s a very good 1997 KCRW Bookworm interview by Michael Silverblatt,:

Michael’s long poem March 18, 2003 has been described as the greatest poem of our time.

Michael read the poem at The Great Hall at Cooper Union on Tuesday, Feb 20th, 2007, prior to a talk by Howard Zinn, to an audience of a thousand plus. Bob Holman introduced Michael as “Whitman to Zinn's Lincoln” (the podium at Cooper Union is the one where Lincoln gave his great anti-slavery address): "As a poet, a fearless, edgy poet, Michael Lally has been giving readers his version of history for the past 35 years. He has done so with the political forthrightness and performance punch of Ginsberg, with the wit and language skills of O'Hara. But because of the place of poetry in this country, a bard like Lally, while a member of the Pantheon to all manner of poets, remains unknown to the public at large, even an audience like tonight's cognoscenti." Michael's reading was a huge success.

You can read more about March 18, 2003 at Stephen Vincent’s blog:

The most crucial period of Michael’s development as a poet was spent in DC, and the impact of his presence here is still an ongoing reality, as are the benefits (for so many) that resulted from his presence and his activities. As far as “alternative poetry” is concerned, no city outside of New York and San Francisco can rival the achievements of the poets of Washington in terms of publications and reading series, and general ambience. Poets in their twenties, thirties and forties associated with DC are the beneficiaries of that prestige, as well as being the creators of its continuation. Michael was there at the beginning, and, for those who care about these things, he deserves the highest regard.

Lang, Winch & Lally
at my apartment in the Dupont East
photograph by Rain Worthington

Michael Lally’s books:

What Withers (poetry, Doones Press, 1970)
MCMLXVI Poem (poem, The Nomad Press, 1970)
The Lines Are Drawn (poetry, Asphalt Press, 1970)
Stupid Rabbits (poetry, Morgan Press, 1971)
The South Orange Sonnets (poetry, Some Of Us Press, 1972)
Late Sleepers (poem, Pellet Press, 1973)
Malenkov Takes Over (poetry/collage, A Dry Imager Production, 1974)
Oomaloom (prose, A Dry Imager Production, 1975)
Sex/The Swing Era (poetry, Lucy & Ethel, 1975)
My Life (poetry, Wyrd Press, 1975)
Dues (poetry, The Stonewall Press, 1975)
Mentally, He's a Sick Man (prose, Salt Lick Press, 1975)
Rocky Dies Yellow (poetry, Blue Wind Press, 1975; second edition, 1977)
Charisma (poetry, O Press, 1976)
Just Let Me Do It (poetry, Vehicle Editions, 1978)
Catch My Breath (poetry and prose, Salt Lick Press, 1978; second edition, 1995)
In the Mood (poem, Titanic Books, 1978)
White Life (poetry, Jordan Davis, 1980)
Attitude (poetry, Hanging Loose Press, 1982)
Hollywood Magic (poetry, Little Caesar, 1982)
Cant Be Wrong (poetry, Coffee House Press, 1996)
Of (book-length poem, Quiet Lion Press, 1999)
It's Not Nostalgia: Poetry & Prose (Black Sparrow Press, 1999)
¿Que Pasa, Baby? (prose poem, Wake Up Heavy Press, 2001)
It Takes One to Know One: Poetry & Prose (Black Sparrow Press, 2001)
March 18, 2003 (book-length poem with illustrations by Alex Katz, Libellum, 2004) (third edition, Charta, 2006)

& a CD:

What You Find There (poetry compact disc, New Alliance Records, 1994)


Lally said...

Wow. Thank you Doug. But, you mean I didn't invent language poetry?! I'm sure that joke came from my generally proprietary attitude about anything that touched my life and I became passionate about, that and the sense that me and the people I came from, and later befriended, were continually being either overlooked or misinterpreted. Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful consideration of my work, and I agree, the artist on NYPD Blue was definitely the best work I've done as an actor in many ways (and a bit as an old codger on Deadwood) and the book-length poem OF is one of my favorite books of mine too. Glad you noticed brother. I was always a fan of your work, right from the git go, but NONE OF THE ABOVE was mostly put together before we even met, just took a while to get out and in the meantime many struggles over my choices. For instance I had some excerpts from Kathy Acker's work back when she was still calling herself The Black Tarantula and we were friends, but when the publisher figured out that the excerpts were actually juxtaposed excerpts from other people's work (! the appropriation side of Kathy's creativity) he refused to publish them. I was always sorry about some folks that weren't in that, like Ahmos Zu Bolton and Ted Greenwald, John Godfrey and Rebecca Wright, as well as you and others, some of whom I mention in the preface to that anthology. One of the hazards of editing anything I guess. Anyway, keep up the good work.

mark wallace said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mark wallace said...

I for one appreciate the urgency that you're taking to this project, Doug--thanks!

Perhaps a conversation for another time is why I'd been reading poetry for years before I heard Michael's name. In fact it was you folks in DC who first made me aware of him. I mean, I suppose this could be a touchy subject, especially that his comment here comes right before mine. In any case I've been glad over the years for the way you pointed me in the direction of Michael's work.

tmorange said...

that lang-winch-lally photo is one of my absolute alltime faves -- thank you!

doug yr right about NOTA being the first published appearance of the given poets. the only precedent for something similar is "the dwelling place," a section of alcheringa edited by ron silliman (edited 1973 published 1975).

would be a question to put to ron, but i've suspected that his prefatory tactic of listing other poets who would/could be included in his gatherings is something he picked up from michael's preface to NOTA.

tina once told me that marjorie perloff reviewed NOTA for the washington post book world, but i've been unsuccessful in tracking a copy of that down.

looking down michael's bibliography, that's a fascinating window into the world of small press publishing, 1970-1980. i'd even say micropress -- some of those titles today must barely survive in a coupla dozen copies! i know hanging loose did an uncollected lally, but i'd also love to see a collected lally of the 1970s!


Unknown said...

One feels somewhat ambivalent, but equally conscious of erasure from history. When you discuss NONE OF THE ABOVE you note that it included 31 poets; you list 30 poets, omitting me. Perhaps I am erased due to absence, having fallen from the world and no longer present, alternately

Lally said...

Hey Simon, I'm sure it was just a typo on Doug's part, but I can tell you, as you already know anyway, that Simon Schuchat and his poetry have always been in any anthology I did or would ever think of doing. Then and now.

douglang said...

Simon, you are correct, it was an attempt to erase you from history. I was hired by the Mongolian branch of New Formalism, something about a wild dactyl of yours that had disturbed them, you crazy kid.

I am sorry for my error. It has been corrected.

David Gitin said...

Great to see this appreciation of Mike's work.

Fitz Fitzgerald said...

Thank you Doug for this amazing post.