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Libbie Rifkin
"My Little World Goes On St. Mark's Place":
Anne Waldman, Bernadette Mayer and the Gender of an Avant-Garde Institution
This piece is about 3,000 words or about ten printed pages long. It was given as a talk at the Page Mothers Conference at UCSD in San Diego in early 1999.


An apologia at the outset. I'm a last minute fill-in for Aldon Nielsen; I came here to listen and to go to the archive and I just happened to have a copy of this paper that I gave last weekend at the 20th Century Literature Conference in Lousiville (you never know, etc). It's not about "the Canon" per se; but it's about some related ideas, namely "institionalization," "archiving," and the impulses of innovative poets to incorporate, and to dictate the terms by which they both live and live on. I think of "institutionalization" as at once a precursor and an alternative to "canonization" - one you do to yourself, the other someone (usually an academic) does to you - and I've found that animosity towards the latter tends to get directed back onto the former. As an unavoidably academic critic, and a beginning one at that, I'm aware that this animosity is a response to academic co-optation of innovative energies in the service of purely academic reproduction. Now I wrote this paper for an academic conference, and I'm quite conscious, in this more hybrid context, of my tendency in it to perform proto-canonizing gestures - I'm distanced historically and experientially from my material and so tend to hypostatize it, and my encounters with the people I discuss, several of whom are in this room, have been purely textual, limited to such isolating academic sites as the library, the archive, my office. So given my institutional position, this paper is an attempt to think about how certain kinds of institutionalization might be enabling - for women poets in particular.


      "I know how to work the machines!," Anne Waldman declares near the beginning of "Fast Speaking Woman"(42). An incantatory rush of first-person declaratives, "Fast Speaking Woman" begins in the ether: "Because I am air / let me try you with my magic power" (36).

(Anne Waldman, Helping the Dreamer: New and Selected Poems 1966-1988, Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1989)

But with "I know how to work the machines!" Waldman celebrates a more mundane and yet world-changing kind of power. In 1965 and 1966, downtown poetry readings began moving from the cafes to a community church called St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery, the Office of Economic Opportunity delivered a grant to develop an arts program for local youth, Joel Oppenheimer was selected to direct it, and Waldman was hired on as his secretary. In the next two years, the St. Mark's Poetry Project emerged as a powerful locus of workshops, readings, and publication ventures, the gal Friday became the boss, and the post-War avant-garde had its first major woman-run institution.
Libbie Rifkin

Libbie Rifkin
In this paper, I begin the larger project of charting the first decade of this institution's development in and through the work of two of the women who "work[ed] the machines" - Waldman and Bernadette Mayer. They were both powerful players in that first decade: Waldman was Director for the better part of it, and Mayer ran a workshop at the Project in the early 70s which has been considered critical to the development of innovative poetry since. In the late 60s and early 70s Mayer and Waldman collaborated in many areas and they worked together on the Poetry Project itself, but they appear to have differed dramatically in both their aesthetic and their organizational values. Having just finished a book project on institution-building among the male avant-garde poets often shorthanded as the "New Americans," I'm interested in the ways in which St. Mark's deviates from its predecessors, and I'm especially interested in whether and how St. Marks' difference can be read in terms of the gender of its early leadership. In order to give this latter issue its complex due, it seems crucial to keep the differences between Waldman and Mayer themselves to the fore.
      The St. Mark's Poetry Project opened its doors right on the heels of two events that we might say marked the end of the "New American"'s era of emergence: the Berkeley Poetry Conference of 1965 and then, in the summer of 1966, the death of Frank O'Hara. Waldman attended the Berkeley conference, where she met Lewis Warsh, started Angel Hair magazine with him and, at Charles Olson's marathon performance, "vowed there and then to exist inside poetry and a community of poets" ( as she put it in an interview with Ed Foster.) With Waldman as a bridge, the history of avant-garde institutions becomes readable as continuum, rather than revolutionary rise and fall. Indeed, in her introduction to Out of This World, Waldman's language suggests that the Poetry Project opened very much under the sign of Olson: "we decided to call our new venture a poetry 'project' because . . . we had in mind the sense of an outward projecting, 'to direct one's voice to be heard clearly at a distance'" (4). Which leads to the question: at St. Mark's founding, what kind of difference did gender difference really make?
      There is still no official history of the Poetry Project. In 1979, Bob Holman drafted an oral history cum performance piece, a document that has yet to be fact checked. While I'll draw a bit on this resource for anecdotal guidance, the challenge, at this early stage in my work, before I've been able to talk to many of the participants, has been to read the social dynamics of the institution in its literary productions. From its inception, the Project left a paper trail, in a range of genres. Part of its initial grant included a publication, and after a single issue of a glossy journal called The Genre of Silence, a mimeo magazine called The World became the primary focus. Edited at the outset by Waldman, Warsh, and Joel Sloman, The World reflected the particular flavor of St. Mark's writing, and its production - especially the collating parties held at Waldman and Warsh's 33 St. Mark's Place apartment - helped to consolidate the community. In its first years of publication, The World's oversized pages, short, line-trading, loosely collaborative poems, and regular cadre of contributors all signalled its debt to Ted Berrigan's "C" magazine, which was by then defunct after 13 issues. Gossipy, diaristic, and light-heartedly orgiastic, the early Worlds lack "C"'s experimental rigour and position-taking momentum, however. The first issue, dated January 1967, begins with a series of poems co-signed by Berrigan, Warsh, Waldman, and Michael Brownstein - cut-up collages on the basic theme of dirty sheets and bed-swapping. Larry Fagin's poem "Thirty Girls I'd Like to Fuck" which appeared in the 1968 Valentine Issue gives a sense of the magazine's in-group humor; the poem is a straight list, including Fagin's wife among actually only 28 other mostly recognizable names. The Fagin piece is a bit distracting, so I've given you the cover of another World issue - here faces are substituted for names, but the high school yearbook feel remains a constant.



Cover of The World 


However much The World, and Waldman's own poetry from that period, may have reflected a kind of "house aesthetic" - call it, "friendly recycling" - the Poetry Project was not a monolith, and I'd argue that its major difference from certain "New American" institutions is that it didn't strive to be one. Heterogenous and subject to factionalism, within a few years of its founding, St. Mark's was struggling to institute mechanisms of accountability and inclusion - among them, regular community meetings, the election of an advisory board, and open readings on Monday nights. From Holman's history and [my] discussions with the current Director of the Project, Ed Friedman, it appears that Mayer herself, along with Friedman and some others, helped to instigate these developments (and please correct me if I'm wrong). The changes were highly controversial - branded by many writers in the community as "institutionalization" and considered antithetical to the spirit in which the Project was initiated. Holman's oral history gathers several such responses; he quotes Joel Oppenheimer, for instance, as saying that a movement towards formalizing would be "the end of it. Everybody will have their little cards and they'll be able to vote and it won't have anything to do with poetry." The Poetry Project's initial organization had consisted simply of a Director and an assistant, positions considered more creative than bureaucratic. Pared down accountability structures in the name of "spontaneity": this was an organizational model that St. Mark's had inherited from its "New American" forebears. Freed from the regulatory processes that would render larger-scale institutions at least marginally accountable to some measure of diversity, institutions in this mold could be more capricious and vehement in their exclusions than their mainstream counterparts. Of the last years of Black Mountain College, for instance, Martin Duberman has noted that "the hierarchy could be as rigidly exclusive, as impassable to the uninitiated - and more male chauvinist - than anything found on a traditional university campus" (433). Holman quotes Maureen Owen voicing her support for more formal mechanisms as a counter to precisely this sort of excess: she says, "I don't know how long an organization can go on being casual and loose if it really wants to grow and develop new programs. I'd like to see certain directions, see things through, see more women reading. The Poetry Project is a male-dominated organization and it's just not healthy." And the quote continues, "An archive. So much has been lost, which is the sort of price you pay for spontaneity and casualness. Things don't always get recorded."
      In what remains of this paper, I want to consider some connections between the institutional and the aesthetic: specifically, what is the relationship between "getting recorded" in Owen's institutionalizing sense of archiving, writing bylaws, etc., and a poetic of recorded experiment, one that eschews values of spontaneity and organicism in favor of fixed procedure? And what is there to be gained, for women poets, from plan, process, procedure? These questions are motivated by the conviction that there is a symbiosis between certain kinds of "open-form" poetry and poetic communities that would remain "casual," and that such communities often end up not being fully "open" when it comes to difference - in Owen and Duberman's accounts, specifically gender difference. Of what he calls the "autocratic" pedagogic tactics practiced in Olson's classrooms at both Black Mountain and Buffalo (where, in one instance, women were invited to watch from the hallway) Michael Davidson has suggested that "a phallic test on learning must be seen as a dimension of projectivism - an attempt to literalize the power of male speech by refusing women any interlocutory relationship with it."* The bed-swapping, line-stealing, name-dropping "open" style of the early World instances a less explicitly phallic mode that nevertheless appears to premise authority and communal energy on exclusivity; to write that kind of poetry, one needed access to the hot-house intimacy that only the people who could literally fit into Waldman and Warsh's apartment could share.

* "Compulsory Homosociality: Charles Olson, Jack Spicer, and the Gender of Poetics," in Sue-Ellen Case, Philip Brett and Susan Leigh Foster, eds., Cruising the Performative: Inverventions into the Representation of Ethnicity, Nationality and Sexuality, Bloomington: Indianna University Press, 1995, p.204.

      While differences between Waldman and Mayer's practices complicates any easy conclusions about gender and "institutionalization," they do help manifest a link between institutional and aesthetic tendencies. The two women appear to have taken different positions in the "institutionalization" debate raging at St. Mark's in the early 70s (Mayer loosely for it and Waldman loosely against it) and their writing from that period seems to correspond to their stances in this struggle. By 1974, Waldman was beginning to move away from New York School social poetry and into a different kind of "open form"; she was experimenting with the improvisatory performance techniques that would produce "Fast Speaking Woman." Conceived as Waldman's attentions were turning towards the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, "Fast Speaking Woman" cross-polinates the ethnopoetic expansiveness nurtured "out west" with remnants of chatty urbanism. Waldman borrowed the chant form of the poem from a 1956 recording of a Mazatec Indian shamaness named Maria Sabina. In making the form her own, Waldman's poem both decenters the self and, especially in performance, gives it space for indefinite expansion. As she says in a note to the poem: "reading aloud as intended I can be more playful improvising new words and thus expanding the territory I'm in." Waldman's mode thus appears to take its cues from Olsonian projective size (she also shares his fascination with Mexico); indeed, Waldman has linked her feeling of "shaman energy" back to Olson's performance at the Berkeley poetry conference, where, as she recalls in an interview, she "could really see the poet as a tribal shaman, speaking and moving and being embarrassing not just for himself or herself, but for you, the audience."
      While Waldman was working with a "projective" poetics of high energy performance, Mayer was fine-tuning experiments in proceduralism that she had articulated in 1967 while editing the mimeo mag 0 to 9. Mayer suggested in a recent interview (in the Poetry Project Newsletter) that 0 to 9 manifested a "resistance" to "New York writing"; and it appears that the cloistered sociality of "New York writing" may have been one of spurs to this resistance. In the interview, she says "Ted and Ron would do these collaborations and send them to 0 to 9 and we would never publish them," going on to say "I guess it was because of their style or something."

The interview is with Lisa Jarnot, from The Poetry Project Newsletter, Feb/March 1998, Issue #168.

Unnatural Acts, the magazine that emerged from Mayer's Poetry Project workshop in 1972, also reflects a certain resistance, and suggests the distinct environment of the workshop as it contributed to the variegated nature of the St. Mark's scene as a whole. In its treatment of authorship and issues of literary property, Unnatural Acts might be situated on a continuum with such precursor little magazines as Cid Corman's Origin and Berrigan's "C," but it positions itself so far down that line that it ends up constituting a major departure. In its first issue, Unnatural Acts came out entirely without attribution or editorial information. Issue 1 consists of fifty-seven numbered sections, concluding comically and somewhat self-reflexively with a lone plaintive voice asking, "Does everyone here know what / an ashram is except me?"


Front Cover of Unnatural Acts


The product of a group of people gathering at Mayer's loft, writing for 8 hours, and then publishing the results, this first issue of Unnatural Acts exhibits all of the unevenness that might be expected from such a process. The second issue, which opened its doors to people outside the workshop, offers an explicit account of editorial policy and aesthetic agenda. A sidebar that continues from the front to the back cover declares that "each issue of unnatural acts magazine will be a collaborative writing experiment," going on to name the eleven contributors, indicate the date (November 11, 1972) on which the issue was written, and describe the fairly elaborate procedure out of which it developed: each writer brought a page of writing which was traded, rewritten, and discarded. Participants then selected one of the rewritten documents and used it as the basis for a new piece of writing. They noted the time at which their new work was completed, returned it to a common pile, and then chose another page to begin the process again; in the end, the poems were arranged chronologically to produce the magazine's format. The front and back covers (which you've got) contain a kind of disembodied conversation, commenting on this process and theorizing collaboration more generally. Just yesterday I found in the archive a sketch for this cover where this material is called a "manifesto" - it seems typical of the Unnatural Acts initiative to revise the manifesto into a more dialogic and accretive form.



Back Cover of Unnatural Acts


Unnatural Acts 5 also elaborates its process, which directed writers and visual artists through four stages of collaborative engagement and exchange. After that issue, the magazine terminated, a fact attributable to funding problems, though it has been suggested that potential contributors from the community were discouraged by the magazine's no-names policy. "Our poems aren't our appearances," one excerpt from the Issue 2 cover maintains, "when you take out the I's / everybody is matched." It is tempting to imagine a community as well as a poetics founded on "taking out the I's," and it seems that Mayer's workshop and the extended group of writers and artists surrounding it began to approximate such a space. In its desire to take on the "unnatural" as its primary model for producing artworks, the workshop deviates radically from the fantasies of self-legitimation and organicism manifest in so many of the New Americans' poetic and institutional productions. The "necessity . . . to be as wood is," declared by Olson in "Projective Verse," is nowhere felt in Unnatural Acts, and Berrigan's half-ironic claim, that "I was and am "C" magazine...And I intended and intend for "C" to exist as a personal aesthetic statement by me," finds no correlative in Mayer's near-invisible self-positioning. In place of individual ambition, process itself appears to reign. In Issue 2, the collaboratively produced poems begin to meditate on the linguistic and social implications of this fact. I've given you one such poem, apparently submitted at 3:55. It begins:

We try this plan. Forgetting what the plan was
we try this plan. We examine this plan, we assume
we examine this plan. We assume that we try this
This is a planned space.
We try this space.
We say your body is mine, is in my space, that is we
occupy the same space, the same body, the same mind
that is we are we are we

If the communalism here verges on the touchy-feely, the poem that follows thankfully undercuts it with the lines: "learning to be alone in the presence of plastic / in the presence of a man who doesn't have a plan." But the production of "a planned space" was a serious endeavor; it extended beyond the page, and beyond Mayer's workshop to the Poetry Project in general, where it appears to have helped to spawn such "formalizing" initiatives as the Community Meetings as well as the Lecture Series, which opened the Poetry Project to a new and productive interdisciplinarity. The anonymous, hybrid voice produced out of her workshop procedures re-appears in Mayer's individual experiments. Lines from Studying Hunger* such as "You are addressing you to me. I am addressing you to you. Too seldom a point of opening. Private space, opening private, opening space," echo material from Unnatural Acts and reveal Mayer mobilizing strategies of proceduralist collaboration to interrogate the expressivist assumptions of autobiography.

* "Studying Hunger", in The Bernadette Mayer Reader, New York: New Directions Press, 1992.

"Experiments," Mayer's contribution to The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book closes with the command "work yr ass off to change the language & dont ever get famous" (83). That such a proscription never became dogma at the St. Mark's Poetry Project may be indicative of an openness to difference that Mayer herself helped to institutionalize.

Libbie Rifkin

Libbie Rifkin teaches modern American poetry at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, AL. Her first book, tentatively titled "Making It / New: Avant-Garde Poetic Careers, 1945-70," is due out from the University of Wisconsin Press in December 1999. She has published essays on Ted Berrigan's social poetics, and on AIDS and poetry, as well as several reviews.


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