Monday, January 28, 2013

actualists in iowa city, 1970-1980 

When you google the actualist poetry movement, you get about a page of good links that cover some poets who lived in Iowa City in the 1970's; one of the leaders, Darrell Gray, then moved to San Francisco and continued it there for a decade or so. I have recently become more interested in the Actualist movement, so I've been going through these links to see what people say about the poets, the movement, the times. I am surprised to find my own site as listing very high though I have said almost nothing about the topic. This is disturbing, as if Actualism were about to pass into the wind with very little notice; we must not let that happen.

Let's start with the facts. There were more than a dozen excellent poets (not to mention a few stringers) in Iowa City in the early seventies, quite separate from the Workshop, and, as on cue, the Writers' Workshop entered a period of snobbery that perhaps lit the flame under their work. Now it's not clear to me how strong this snobbery was, or how often or well expressed, but it was perceived by the actualists, who decided to take poetry to the people in a revolutionary kind of way, and make poetry that was not elitist, quite immediate, and even theatrical in nature. One blogger, a guy named Michael, calls it "a sort of melange of Dada, Groucho Marxism, and street theater" which rings true to me, partly because I saw the best of the theatre more or less accidentally, a story I will tell in time. I was more impressed, actually, by a book called Actualist Anthology, which is now quite rare, almost out of print, and which contained a number of poems from a variety of authors; from this I could better glean the essence of the actualist movement.

Some of these actualists are famous in their own right; for others, the peak of their fame may be their association with the group. I've done an informal survey, starting with the fourteen who appear in the Anthology. Anselm Hollo came to Iowa City and the Workshop already famous, stuck around as an inspiration to others, and now has health issues. Dave Morice, a friend of mine, is famous for many things but partly as a founder of the movement. Morty Sklar is a friend of mine and publisher of Spirit that Moves Us Press. I also knew Allan Kornblum, though not well; he made his press into the Coffee House Press and thus had an illustrious career in publishing; I don't remember his wife Cinda as well, though I vaguely remember being in their house once. Chuck Miller, Jim Mulac and John Sjoberg were friends of mine; maybe I could get them to talk about actualism. I believe Chuck would be the best known of these, but none outside of Hollo and Morice George Mattingly, John Batki, David Hilton, Steve Toth, and Sheila Hildenbrand appear in the volume, but I don't remember knowing them personally, or their having much fame outside the movement. Darrell Gray is an excellent poet, and doesn't even have a wikipedia page.

So here I am now, with this excellent volume of poetry, and knowing that Dave Morice has had a heart attack, although he himself is probably the best chronicler of the movement; his account probably stands as the best general account of the movement itself, but he was a leader, along with Darrell Gray and Morty Sklar, editors of the Anthology, and that leaves very few objective observers, poetry critics, who even noticed what happened. On the west coast, of course, you have these documenters, these chroniclers, who pick up on good poetry as you would the smell of good seafood, and they noticed Darrell Gray, when he moved out there, and what he did. It's an interesting sidelight to me that the Duck's Breath Mystery Theater, a troupe of absurdist comedians, moved to San Francisco at about the same time he did, and made it big, one could say, though I really don't know. What is the relationship? Was this merely a coincidence? I don't know. What I'm saying is that while actualism has been documented out there (I think), I can't say that there's much about Iowa City and its crowd, and I'm wondering if maybe that would be my job.

I myself landed in Iowa City in 1975; took one English course (this was not Workshop, I was an undergraduate), became disillusioned, and dropped out of the U. of Iowa to start a restaurant and ramble a bit, and do a lot of things that are now legal in Washington and Colorado, mostly the latter two. I did not consider myself a writer at the time because, in my one course, I found myself unable to write, and I failed to make a good connection with the teacher, whose name I can't even remember. I have no personal experience of the alleged workshop "snobbery" that touched off the movement, yet I believe it was there, and am interested in that edge there, as I am a fiddler, and live constantly on that edge where some of us do it by the book, by the rules, and others live a little more for the moment. But I'm almost more inclined to make a novel out of it, since it's already got such a plot, and so much of it is actually true. I did not go to any of the "conventions," though, though I remember being invited to at least one, so have limited experience with some of the antics I've seen accounted on these pages.

So I was there in Iowa City, and I can picture Dave Morice doing street theater; I saw him typing a poem off of Iowa City's highest building, and I saw him dressed like Uncle Sam in his Dr. Alphabet costume, and I remember all that and don't mind reliving it a little. I'd like to start with the poetry itself, but I don't know how proper that is to just reprint it on this blog, when this is essentially a publication also and I don't have permission from the authors. So I won't, and instead will only say, let this post be a starting point; look into it yourself. Dave Morice's wikipedia entry is a good place to start; he's an incredible guy, and, among all of them, the one who remained in Iowa. Darrell Gray was also a poet who attracted a lot of attention, because of the quality of his work, though he died of alcoholism in 1986, and does not have a wikipedia entry (maybe this is my job?). Morty Sklar has given up publishing but still has the last of the Anthologies...I feel that the time is right for some kind of account, as weak as mine might be, and for someone to say, hey, Iowa City is a small kind of place, a place that was being upturned by the forces of development, a vortex of various kinds of activity. My own life was somewhat topsy-turvy at that time, so I feel guilty, a little, chronicling what in essence I saw through blurry eyes. But I also know how good this poetry was, and I like the way it veered away from the beaten path and directly into the corner of Washington & Dubuque streets.

I have to say, it's an absurdist drama in a way, wanting badly to show what actualism is, yet feeling unable to simply copy the poetry; or, feeling very much like an actualist, in some ways, yet being unable to call myself one, not having written even a line in that era; having direct experience with Iowa City, and wanting to write about it, yet not really knowing the actualist scene. But there's good news on the horizon. One, Iowa City, for one, has some sense of what a character Dave Morice was, and is, and of the movement itself, as it existed there at that time, and Iowa City itself is stepping up to the plate, in terms of documenting it. Two, though what little I wrote used to come up first page on google, now it's moving down; others are writing about it. Three, Darrell's wholesale transfer of goods to San Francisco ensured that somebody would notice something, and they did. Ron Silliman is apparently out of the poetry blogging business, but he'd noticed; these blogs will, in the end (if they survive), be the enduring record. There's an irony to writing poetry on matchbooks, because by their essence, they are temporal; their matches burn; they run out and themselves get thrown into the fire. But there is a side of actualism that, like the fiddle, reaches people, and they say, I like that, I can relate to that. That's the side I like and seek after. And want to document, for whatever reason.

One can document simply by making a wikipedia page. I could start with one for the movement itself; I could make one for Darrell Gray. I could write a novel. I could expand on this, and just give a longer, better, more objective history. I mention all these "I coulds" because I could also get hit by a car, or just turn my attention to linguistics or whatever; I haven't been able to marshall my resources to really pull this together. I'm here to say, though, that it would be worth doing.

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