Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Up to the Aether (guest post by Kaplan Harris)

I adore when poets & scholars devote themselves to making available the work of some elder poet. I'm thinking of Peter Gizzi's The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer, Kristin Prevallet's Helen Adam Reader, Kevin Davies & Larry Fagin's edition of George Stanley's A Tall, Serious Girl: Selected Poems 1957-2000, & Patrick Durgin's Hannah Wiener's Open House. These projects may not carry the institutional/academic clout of a monograph, but they have a lasting value for readers.

So I have a fantasy about someone assembling a similar collection for the late Steve Abbott (1943-1992). There is a lot to say about Abbott, whose life was cut short by AIDS, but whose activity & interventions, even in a short period, make enough to fill a very long biography. He was "a radical, a father, a lover, an ex-monk, a cartoon-artist, a hedonist, a romantic & more," according to one reviewer back in 1979 -- when he was just getting started. Any "Steve Abbott Reader" or "Portable Steve Abbott" would need a table of contents with 5-6 generous sections for his poems, narrative prose, comics, letters, editorial work, & criticism. A bibliography of his published writing is already available on the wonderful website that his daughter Allyssa Abbott created for him. See also his journal excerpts which are quoted throughout. Gary Sullivan has a post on Abbott's comics here (which also includes other links).

Abbott's editorial work is a long story that greatly interests me right now. I see him first appearing in the mid-70s not long after his move to San Francisco when he published poems, reviews, essays, & interviews in Gay Sunshine. In 1980 he founded an essential magazine for New Narrative writing called Soup (some details about it here & more soon in an essay for Jacket by Rob Halpern).

Lately I've been taking notes on his turn in the editor's seat for the long-running SF-based
Poetry Flash. Since the newsletter's inception in late 1972, the front page had been solely devoted to a calender of local readings & poetry-related events. The brief columns that were positioned after the calender tended to shrink & grow over the years depending not only on the budget, but also on who was in charge & who had time to compose or collect material. Jon Ford, for example, was the prolific editor of a section called "Speaking Up" that included reviews & reading reports, & Tim Jacobs was in charge of a small section of announcements called "Rambles." But when Abbott came on board in February 1979, the calender was moved to the middle section, & each issue now began with a front-page column of gossipy newsbites called "Up to the Aether" (after Jack Spicer's Heads of the Town up to the Aether). The newsletter also raised its circulation to 5000 issues per month -- that's a lot of poetry news.

Abbott took a lot of heat for "Up to the Aether," but readers also praised the energy that he brought to each issue. Here's sample excerpts from several installments of the column dated 1979-1980. Recognize any names?

  • “Non-smokers can look forward to a new series R. Silliman and B. Perlman are starting at Tassajara Bakery (only other non-smoker location I know of is Bound Together).”
  • “Gregory Corso’s back from Europe. I know because he came to my reading with Jack Mueller at the Grand Piano & tried his best to disrupt it. Didn’t succeed of course. ‘Well Jack,’ I said afterwards, ‘When the big guns come after us it must show we’re starting to get somewhere.’"
  • On a recent MLA: “Academic critics continue to get fat spinning webs of Confucian pedantry while the real movers and shakers of poetry live at the edge of poverty.”
  • From a year-in-review column, on Robert Gl├╝ck’s Family Poems & Bruce Boone’s My Walk with Bob: “provocative essays on love, media manipulation, etc.”
  • From the same year-in-review column: “Those who think most language-centered writing obscure & non-political should check out Rae Armantrout’s The Invention of Hunger. Very accessible yet most elegant, this chapbook is one of my favorites from Tuumba Press so far. Other new Tuumba books are Percentage by Carla Harryman & Observatory Gardens by Ray DiPalma….” He also praises Susan Howe’s Secret History of the Dividing Line (“enjoyed reading and re-reading”).
  • “Carla Harryman’s started QU1… with 2 exquisite poems by S. Benson. Reread this cover to cover several times & not just because 7 pages easier to get thru than 132 either.”
  • From an April Fools issue: “L. Ferlinghetti has just accepted a $10,000 NEA grant to do a study on SF Language-Centered writers.”
  • After praising the international focus of the 4th Annual International SF Poetry Festival: “Elsewhere in town, I see the moral guardians are at it again: Should Kathy Acker write this or should Bruce Boone talk that way summed up questioning at 80 Langton poetry and politics forum. It’s the same old saw that separated Duncan & Levertov years ago. Theories are fine but one must go where one’s poem or novel takes one (a passivist view?) and if you can’t say what you want in your own writing, as Kathy pointed out, then where, pray tell, can you? Which isn’t to suggest that questioning certain modes of discourse isn’t beneficial (here columnist does a dance of Subtle Distinction, trying to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes)."
  • On Talks: Hills 6/7, edited by Bob Pereman: “These talks on writing rank with Benjamin, Barthes and Auerbach... so important it deserves a separate review.
Abbott's correspondence could also find a happy place in a collection of his work. Consider his letter published in the 10-year anniversary issue of Gay Sunshine: "When I first became aware of Gay Sunshine in 1970-71, I was organizing anti-war work in Atlanta, Georgia. The impact it had upon me, along with documents such as Carl Whitman's Gay Manifesto, was immediate and phenomenal. I'd long been aware of my own homosexual feelings but had felt they were a private concern to be subordinated to other political work. Here, at last, were arguments that up-front homosexual liberation was equally important and complimentary to the women's and Black Liberation movements."

Note that Abbott was the
student government president at Emory during this time: "In a column I will never forget, I made my 'coming-out' a public event. Over the next two years I helped organize Atlanta's Gay Liberation Front and, for a year, was the Gay Lib editor of The Great Speckled Bird. I vividly remember the first National Gay Liberation Conference in Austin, Texas, where I was able to meet several members of the Gay Sunshine Collective whose writings had influenced me so much." His letter continues: "Over subsequent years, Gay Sunshine continued to provide crucial information and support toward my own formation as a Gay person and a poet.... The Allen Ginsberg interview was particularly influential to me as were pioneering essays on the traditions of homosexuality in the Middle East, Russia and Japan. I began to see how writers and poets were often at the forefront of the Gay movement in all countries, and when Winston [Leyland, editor of Gay Sunshine] accepted my first poem for publication, brief as it was, I felt I'd received an important stamp of approval."

(Btw, if you're in the Buffalo area on March 17th, I'll be giving a talk touches on the above material for the Poetry Collection's Small Press in the Archive Lecture Series. Details here. My talk mainly addresses the later reverberations of New Narrative writing after c1980-1985, but my attention is also on the founding figures, like Steve Abbott, who wrote, argued, & rallied their way through the mid to late 1970s.)

UPDATE/CORRECTION: The original version of this post featured a picture of Steve Abbott interviewing Gore Vidal in Central Park. But the interview was in fact conducted by a second Steve Abbott who was also contributing to Gay Sunshine during these years. My thanks to Kevin Killian for catching the mistake & letting me know about it. Apparently many people get confused by the two Steve Abbotts.


Kaplan Harris is guest blogging on Tuesdays in January & February. His work appears in American Literature, Artvoice, Contemporary Literature, the EPC, Jacket, and The Poetry Project Newsletter. He is also editing, with Peter Baker & Rod Smith, The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley for the University of California Press.


dbuuck said...

For years Kevin Killian had Steve's archives (or most of them), but I believe they are now owned by the SF Public Library, and thus available for perusal & rescue-work.
-David Buuck

-kaplan said...

Thanks for the tip, David. I'm curious to get out there & look through them.

alysia said...

Please get in touch with me Kaplan. I think we might have lots of great ideas and materials to share. alysiaabbott@gmail.com