Summer before last year at Bennington where I’d been editing SILO magazine under tutelage of printer-poet Claude Fredericks, studying literature and poetry with Howard Nemerov and other literary and creative faculty, I was encouraged by Jonathan Cott — comrade I’d known since high school — to visit radical Berkeley and check out the poetry convention. It was certainly going to be more experimental than what I was exposed to at Bennington. A few students had been making queries about why no one taught Williams, Pound or Gertrude Stein, let alone H.D. I was trying to get the school to invite Allen Ginsberg to read. Jon and I had been exchanging work, he’d sent copies of Ted Berrigan’s C magazine jamming my little rustic p.o. box. He’d known Ron Padgett at Columbia University. We were on to the New American Poetry and the poetry net was widening, inviting.
My mother’s connection to poet Anghelos Sikelianos — he was her father-in-law over a decade — had decidedly informed my upbringing and aspirations to poetry. Frances was part of the utopian Delphic Ideal community in Greece in the 1930s spearheaded by Eva Palmer Sikelianos with links to Isadora Duncan, Jose Clemente Orozco, others, that had a humanistic brave notion that art, and Greek drama in particular, could ‘save mankind.’ There was encouragement in our bohemian household towards any act of poetry.
I wrote stories and plays and e.e. cummingsesque poems in high school, and sent them uneventfully off to The Village Voice and The Evergreen Review, to which I loyally subscribed. The night Lewis and I took lysergic acid diethylamide at a friend’s apartment on Nob Hill, first time, I hallucinated a lineage tree, an arbor vitae (prevalent archetypal ‘acid’ icon) — resonant with what you visualize in particular Buddhist practices — that included all the people I’d ever known: family, friends, their families, friends. Also heroes, heroines, cultural figures, saints, poets, ballplayers, actors, movie stars, singers, many others — bad guys, enemies even. Animals, trees, plants, lakes, mountains, and so on. All gathered in my brain in witness motif, gazing at one another and then up at the sky waiting for an impulse to get something ‘going.’ Or make use of their precious time ‘on earth.’ Of course all these folk were already busy, that wasn’t the point. It was my yearning to be part of it all, a blueprint for community, for sacre conversatione. More like a fifties Sci Fi movie? And yet the desire to belong, and to ‘lead’ had a naive, albeit egotistical, purity.
Back on the relative level, clearly Lewis and I were bonded and destined to ‘do something’ together. Certainly meeting on the West Coast and having a sense of those poetry communities helped define or keep expansive the aesthetic of our magazine and press. Also the perspective of an alternative to the official verse culture so clearly manifest at Berkeley was appealing. We were already drawn to underground ‘autonomous zones,’ tender beauties of small press production. White Rabbit books were sacred objects Lewis turned me towards. Later Locus Solus, Art & Literature, The Floating Bear and Ed Sanders Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts were also galvanizing for their intimacy and immediacy.
I had met Diane di Prima in 1963 when she was in situ at the Albert Hotel with children and entourage and books on alchemy. Back in Vermont I’d been working on SILO with printer Ronnie Ballou, who printed grocery lists and menus for livelihood. He was a taciturn New Englander, rarely smiled, but pleased with the new venture. This was not fine letterpress printing but a modest and cheaper substitute. We ordered out for the elegant Fabriano cover paper.
The first Angel Hair cost less than $150 to print. A large page size (9’ x 12’ ) gave ample space around the works. Simple type for our title — from Jon Cott’s provocative line ‘Angel hair sleeps with a boy in my head’ — felt consummately luxurious. The denouement issue was pristine in its own way, sporting George Schneeman’s black line drawing of a couple sailing off in their roadster convertible. I had wanted a different look and texture from other magazines we’d encountered. We weathered complaints from bookstores about the magazine being ‘oversized’ but made no compromise. We sent Angel Hair I out to a range of family, friends, poets, other folk, receiving back modest support, Ann and Sam Charters being among the first subscribers.
By the time I moved back to New York City into 33 St. Marks Place the magazine had been launched. Word came late summer 1966 I’d been hired at The Poetry Project at a salary in the range of $6000 a year which would help supplement, along with Lewis’s job at the Welfare Department, our budding publishing venture. The Project would be a continuation of alternative poetry and an active and engaged literary community.
Our skinny floor-through ‘railroad’ apartment became a veritable salon. First regulars (Ted Berrigan, Dick Gallup, Michel Brownstein, many others) then huge crowds would spill into the premises after readings at the Church [St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, home of the Poetry Project.] Plethora of stories. The night Kenneth Koch stripped down, shocking my mother who later made the remark that the New York School got ‘Beat’ below 14th Street. The cranky lady next door often called the police as decibels mounted. Occasionally some of the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol crowd would show up. Many nights we’d hop over to Max’s Kansas City or take a taxi to 42nd Street to an all-night movie theater.
Although confirmedly inspired by our generation’s music, fashion, drugs, attitudes, politics and being caught up and shaken by the devastating events of our times — the war in Viet Nam, assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King — we didn’t think of ourselves as hippies. Too occupied being writers and publishers, and in my case, an infrastructure (arts administrator) poet. Ted Berrigan jokingly called us the ‘A’ students for our industriousness. After the activity would subside we’d often stay up the rest of the night working, occasionally spotting W. H. Auden out our window (he lived on the next block) in his University of Michigan sweatshirt as he took his early morning ‘constitutional,’ a London Times under his arm. Then we’d sleep a few hours and get ready for the next round of work, art, conversation.
When we decided to publish books and pamphlets we wanted texts enhanced by the work of the artists who had come into our lives, particularly Joe Brainard (also a writer we were to publish)and George Schneeman. Each book had its own reality. Shape and size weren’t confined by an 8-1/2’ x 11’ stapled format, although plenty of those we published had charming distinctions. Bright colored tissue endpapers often enclosed the body of the work. Decisions were made based on budgetary concern or expediency. Early productions (Charles Stein, Gerard Malanga, Lee Harwood) made use of elegant cover papers. Frank O’Hara and John Wieners’s work inspired cottage industry George Schneeman drawings for covers with mimeo insides.
To get something ready in time for a reading or a birthday could be a push. John Giorno’s Birds was timed for a reading. Giant Night with silkscreened Schneeman of a window with holly sprig was a Christmas production. Bill Berkson had ceremoniously invited Lewis and me to meet Philip Guston and his wife Musa in Woodstock which resulted in a generous friendship and Philip’s cover for Clark Coolidge’s ING, and later a cover for Alice Notley’s Incidentals in The Day World, both stunning black and white drawings. Alex Katz’s astute graphic drawing was a perfect match for Bill Berkson’s Shining Leaves. When Jim Dine responded with understated cover art for Ron Padgett and Tom Clark’s Bun, wittily making use of a photo of a bagel, we got nervous about getting the background (burnt almond?) right. Ditto, Jim Rosenquist’s psychedelic cover for Peter Schjeldahl’s Dreams.