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Jacket 16 — March 2002   |   # 16  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |    

Angel Hair feature

by Anne Waldman

Also see Lewis Warsh’s Introduction
Cover of Angel Hair anthology

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I met Lewis Warsh at the Berkeley Poetry Conference [in 1965] and will always forever after think we founded Angel Hair within that auspicious moment. Conflation of time triggered by romance adjacent to the glamorous history-making events of the conference seems a reasonable explanation. Perhaps Angel Hair was what we made together in our brief substantive marriage that lasted and had repercussions. And sped us on our way as writers. Aspirations to be a poet were rising, the ante grew higher at Berkeley surrounded by heroic figures of the New American Poetry. Here was a fellow New Yorker, same age, who had also written novels, was resolute, erudite about contemporary poetry. Mutual recognition lit us up. Don’t I know you?

      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.

Tom Clark, Pat Padgett, Wayne Padgett, and Ron Padgett, Calais, VT, summer, 1967. Photo by Joe Brainard. Courtesy of Ron Padgett

Tom Clark, Pat Padgett, Wayne Padgett, and Ron Padgett, Calais, VT, summer, 1967. Photo by Joe Brainard. Courtesy of Ron Padgett

      Sometimes serious errors in the runs. Kenward Elmslie’s Girl Machine was mis-bound and upside-down. Back to the shop. Donna Dennis’s mysterious cover for Lewis’s Moving Thru Air was printed on limp cover stock, losing all edge and clarity. Re-do. We had standards. The most important thing was pleasing the poets and artists themselves. I mistakenly had Joe Brainard’s cover drawing for Lee Harwood’s Man With Blue Eyes (our very first venture) printed on blue paper. Joe had assumed it would be printed on white but in typical Joe-fashion was gracious (and amused) about it.

Cover for Three Tantrums

      Photographs were often an option. A cover designed by Donna Dennis for 3 American Tantrums by Michael Brownstein features an emaciated yogin. Photographs of Joe Brainard at various stages of childhood grace the serialized I Remember, I Remember More and More I Remember. Limited signed editions were a point of pride.
      My own writing was undergoing shifts of attention and intention. Many writers of my generation were hybrids feeding off the branches of the New American Poetry. My earliest poems are confessional, soulful, questioning of American values. They move around the page. Poems from my last year at Bennington fashioned into a manuscript for graduation were denser, ponderous, ambiguous — sprung from dream, hints of relationship but distanced from palpable experience. Excessively muted in tone and atmosphere, they seem remote now, as if filtered through gauze. Serial poems of Spicer and Blaser were an influence. Yeats and Stevens, Pound’s ‘Cathay’ still haunted the premises. ‘The DeCarlo Lots’ felt genuine — a steadier hand and sound moving in there. Then Ted Berrigan burst in haranguing, breaking the narratives, taking issue with ‘message.’ Look to the painters. Words were things as Gertrude Stein proclaimed. It was easy for me to fall in love with Frank O ‘Hara’s poetry. Philip Whalen’s. The Surrealist antics were a kick to late-night collaborations, corps exquis.
      The education continued along, to paraphrase Whalen. I got looser, dumber, more playful, writing down things I overheard, read, names of people, places, snippets from the radio, the street. O’Hara’s ‘Personism’ manifesto was affecting as an antidote to Charles Olson’s ‘Projective Verse,’ which was potent as well. Cut-up à la Burroughs. Berrigan’s Sonnets. I was also reading the work of all my new poetry friends who were regularly walking into the living room any hour of the day or night. Also giving readings, organizing and running countless poetry events which hosted many elders, being drawn more and more into oral/ aural performative possibilities for myself, inventing ‘modal structures,’ experimenting with tape cut-ups, using music and film with readings, and had begun some tentative musical collaboration. (I was an early — though brief — student of Lamonte Young’s in 1970. )
      By the late sixties the Viet Nam War had escalated. An estimated 550,000 troops were in Southeast Asia by 1969. The Tet offensive was a serious setback, discrediting the American government’s optimistic and false reports. By the time of Nixon’s illegal bombing of Cambodia in 1970, the Mai Lai Massacre, and gruesome casualties all around, the anti-war movement was at its height of engagement. St. Mark’s was a hotbed of political activity that many of us became more consumed by in the late 60s/ early 70s.
      I began working with John Giorno on various provocative ‘cultural interventions ‘including street works, dial-a-poem. Several of us, in cahoots with the Yippies, participated in cultural activism around the Chicago Seven trial. Allen Ginsberg and I started our demonically active ‘spiritual marriage’ (as he called it) which began by chanting Hindu mantras in Daley Park in Chicago and resulted in the founding of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute (now University) in Boulder, Colorado, in 1974. I had visited the Tail of The Tiger Tibetan center in Vermont in 1970 and begun Tibetan Buddhist practice.
      Life and focus were already changing by the time Lewis left for the West Coast in l970. We were able to keep the press going in spite of our separation, stayed friendly, mutually supportive, and consulted one another concerning our continuing Angel Hair productions, now literally from two coasts. We spawned further publishing ventures with new partners and situations: United Artists, Songbird Editions, Rocky Ledge, Erudite Fangs. Obviously a major consequence of Angel Hair’s publishing debut books and pamphlets and other items was the launching of an array of young experimental writers, including ourselves, onto the scene and into the official annals as second-generation New York School poets. A handy moniker, it doesn’t cover the entire territory. Of course the magazine was a project of friendships, artistic collaboration, which are defining qualities of ‘New York School.’ Yet our project mixed up East and West coast scenes and juxtaposed them in an unusual and appealing context. We were also making up on the spot, stumbling along improvisationally.

In retrospect, Angel Hair seems a seed syllable that unlocked various energetic post-modern and post-New American Poetry possibilities, giving a younger generation cognizance that you can take your work, literally, into your own hands. You don‘t have to wait to be discovered. And so-called ephemera, lovingly and painstakingly produced, have tremendous power. They signify meticulous human attention and intelligence, like the outline of a hand in a Cro-Magnon cave.
      Yet with the overwhelming availability of information — everything known, nothing concealed — that we have today through more and more complex technologies, I wonder if Lewis and I would go about our press now in quite the manner. With the same naive enthusiasm and optimism? I like to think so. We gave away our magazine and books, sent them out into the void. We saw little income from bookstores, many of which never even responded. But how much more pleasurable to visit Donna Dennis in her studio, discuss collage versions for Jim Carroll’s 4 Ups & 1 Down, than generate computer art at a solitary ‘work station.’ Or vie and hustle constantly in the competitive world of grants.
      When we published a pamphlet it was a grand occasion. We celebrated all week when Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets was picked up by Grove Press. It would seem in the new millennium poets have to hide their successes from one another. Envy, literary ‘politics,’ who’s in, who’s out — concerns seemingly tangential to the work itself cloud the atmosphere. The early years were magical. Unselfconscious about who we were and what we were doing, we were our own distraction culture.
      We weren’t thinking about career moves or artistic agendas. We weren’t in the business of creating a literary mafia or codifying a poetics. There were no interesting models for that kind of life. We talked about poetry constantly, wrote a lot, worked nonstop on the magazine and press. It was the most interesting and smartest thing we could be doing. We created a world in which we were purveyors, guardians, impresarios of a little slice of poetry turf, making things, plugging in our youth, offering the gift of ourselves to help keep the ever-expanding literary scene a lively place. And it was.

photo of Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh

— Anne Waldman, 10/2000

Photo (left): Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh
Angel hair sleeps with a boy in my head : the Angel hair anthology
edited by Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh
Granary Books, ISBN 1 887123 50 4 (cloth: alk. paper)
ISBN 1 887123 49 0 (pbk.: alk. paper)
Granary Books, Inc.
Distributed to the trade by D.A.P. Distributed Art Publishers, 155 Avenue of the Americas, Second Floor, New York, NY 10013-1508, Orders: (800) 338-BOOK, Tel.: (212) 627-1999, Fax: (212) 627-9484

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