I first heard of UCSD’s Archive for New Poetry from a young Bay Area poet who had just returned from a visit there. At a party' he amused me with a story of his stumbling upon the love letters of two poets we both knew. “One of them wrote to the other,” he whispered, “ ‘I didn’t lick your eyeballs!’ Like they had licked everything else.”
He looked as thrilled as Emma Thompson does in In the Name of the Father, when she discovers a file in the law archives labeled DO NOT SHOW THE DEFENCE. No matter how much I begged, he wouldn’t reveal who the lovers were.
And now I had flown from San Francisco to visit these archives myself. I stood at the bottom of a hill, holding an Archive for New Poetry brochure and looked up at the UCSD Central Library, a huge, ultramodern glass building that surges up out of its concrete base like a spaceship on a launching pad. Winding up the hill through the dry underbrush is a walkway designed by Los Angeles artist Alexis Smith (1992) in the shape of a giant serpent. The path is paved with six-sided slate scales, orangey-brown patches interlocking with ragged black stripes. Its surface arches slightly to suggest the curve of the serpent’s back.
I stepped upon the path’s triangular tail and began to climb. A few feet up the hill I stopped in my tracks. Before me loomed a six-foot-tall marble book, Milton's Paradise Lost. I scanned the brochure in my hand. “The Archive for New Poetry is a comprehensive research collection of American poetry published since 1945...established in 1968...emphasizes the ongoing alternative tradition in recent American writing...book and manuscript collections...realia, performance tapes, posters, and broadsides.” Nothing there to prepare the visitor for such a kinky approach.
I continued my ascent. Toward the top, the snake loops around itself. In the center of the loop is a curved marble bench. I took a closer look. Etched on the left side is another serpent. On the right, Adam and Eve stand beneath a tree. Eve holds an apple. In all caps a quote from Paradise Lost boldly stretches across the center:
YET AH! WHY SHOULD THEY KNOW THEIR FATE?
SINCE SORROW NEVER COMES TOO LATE,
AND HAPPINESS TOO SWEETLY FLIES.
THOUGHT WOULD DESTROY THEIR PARADISE.
NO MORE; WHERE IGNORANCE IS BLISS,
TIS FOLLY TO BE WISE.
I laughed guiltily and moved on, thinking of my own folly. I was not on my way to examine the thousands of books and manuscripts housed in the archive; I was on my way to rummage through the personal correspondence and diaries of writers I had met. I was not a scholar on a lofty research mission; I was a fiction writer searching for gossip and scandal, thought that would destroy their paradise.
Alexis Smith conceives of her public sculpture as a “rumination upon the transition from education to life. Anybody who goes through the process of growing older with any sense of self-examination has to face up to what knowledge does to you. You give up your youthfulness and exuberance.”
“And the library site?” I asked.
The library becomes a symbolic element, the knowledge reservoir.”
The path terminated in a serpent’s head. I stepped off its pink forked tongue. Jagged banks of windows stuck out of the ground. They appeared to be connected to some underground world, like that of the Morlocks in The Time Machine. A couple of perfect blond coeds sauntered by.
I descended a stairway and entered the basement of the UCSD library. The Archive for New Poetry is located around the comer from the book check-out station. A door that reads Mandeville Department of Special Collections opens into a brightly lit reception area. Beyond, a glass-walled viewing room contains rows of mauve-topped tables and plush chairs. Before I could look at anything, I had to show my ID and register as a “user.” My registration will last a year. No pens, I was told, were allowed. The department supplies paper and stubby pencils for taking notes. I was shown to a bank of lockers where my belongings were to be stored. I stuffed my purse and portfolio in locker number four and pocketed the key. Figuring the initiation rites were over, I draped my jacket over one arm and headed for the viewing room. But before I reached the door, the receptionist stopped me and said I had to wear my jacket if I wanted to take it in.
I put on my jacket and requested the 1959 correspondence between beatnik chick Joanne Kyger and her lover Gary Snyder. Snyder had gone to Japan to study Zen, leaving Kyger behind in San Francisco to pine and party, both of which she did in a big way. Her letters are full of longing, grapplings with her nascent spiritual concerns, and riotous vignettes of drunken poetic brawls that went on all night and even longer. Rather than staggering home, the bohemians would sometimes lie on the host’s living room floor and sleep side by side like logs (they called it “heaping”), then get up the next morning and start again.
When I was a girl I dreamed of being a beatnik chick, of wearing a black turtleneck and a long braid down my back, of driving a Karmann Ghia, of slumping in dark smoky clubs, sipping chianti to the beat of bongos and jazzy poetry. Then, when I was in high school, the Summer of Love hit, and grudgingly I became a hippie, tried to pull off laid-back when in my heart of hearts I yearned to be an intense truth-seeker with existential angst. I went to college, moved to San Francisco, and became a writer of experimental narrative. Other than occasionally bumping into Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and once Allen Ginsberg in North Beach coffeehouses, my beatnik dreams lay dormant.
The second time I heard of the archives at UCSD was when my husband, poet Kevin Killian, started mentioning it as his ultimate vacation fantasy. For years he's been writing a biography of Jack Spicer, a central poet of the Berkeley Renaissance, a group of lesser-known intellectual poets who romped through San Francisco around the same time as the Beats. Kevin has spent months in the archives at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley and at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Although I admired his scholarly perseverance, bent over fluorescent-lit tables beneath the hawk-like eyes of watchful librarians, tediously sorting through dusty crumbling forgotten papers, it sounded about as exciting as being stuck in a Safeway checkout line. He would return from the library spent and weary to shower me with a past teeming with extravagant decadence, romantic intensity, substance abuse, and an ever-present devotion to the muse.
In my ambiguous position of Wife of the Biographer, I’ve met survivors of that era now in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, famous figures such as Robert Creeley and Jess, as well as artists and poets who have plummeted to obscurity. I've gone to parties, art shows, conferences, heard enough trashy stories of mid-century bohemia to fill a dozen potboilers. Here’s one of my favorites, told by New York poet Larry Fagin last year while visiting San Francisco. In his 20s, Fagin was in love with another young poet, Jamie Mclnnis. Years later Fagin asked Mclnnis to housesit. Mclnnis was an infamous heroin addict, and while Fagin was gone she sold his furniture to buy drugs. Sitting in my living room, Fagin recounted the incident with lighthearted affection. He smiled and shook his graying head, “That Jamie.” These folks were wild.
Then I visited the Archive for New Poetry and began to understand Kevin's passion for libraries, the seductive lure of caressing someone’s private personal papers. Passages from Gary Snyder’s letters read like transcribed phone sex. When I was a young girl, my mother would bring me along to her friends' houses. I would wait until they were too caught up in their conversation to pay much attention to me. Then I’d dart into the host’s bedroom and rummage through her dresser drawers. Here in the archives at UCSD, my pleasure was equally primal, only the manuscripts librarian was not going to rush up and slap my hands, “Dodie, stop that!” I was a registered user. Addiction had set in.
According to the journal Rare Books and Manuscripts Librarianship, special collections in America originated as departments of academic libraries in the late 19th Century due to changes in university curricula. Courses in history and literature replaced formal recitations in philosophy and the classics, giving rise to scholarly canons of significant texts. Many of these original sources were rare, and libraries began to segregate them in order to safeguard them. By the 1930s there was a growing interest in collecting unpublished source materials. With the academic upheavals of the 1960s, what constituted the literary canon broadened to include women’s studies, area studies, and social history. University libraries broadened their special collections departments in kind, focusing more on ephemera (“what was designed to be discarded”), such as newspapers, diaries, chapbooks, broadsides, and popular music.
UCSD's Mandeville Department of Special Collections incorporates more than just the Archive for New Poetry. Other holdings include the Dr. Seuss collection (Seuss’s fan letters from Richard Nixon and Barbara Bush are not to be missed), a South Pacific voyages collection, a Renaissance historical collection, as well as mystery and comic book collections. According to manuscripts librarian Brad Westbrook, the Mandeville Department of Special Collections gets 1000 users per year, 300 for the Archive for New Poetry. Two to three reference queries by mail or phone are taken per week. And remote access through Internet is the wave of the future.
The Archive for New Poetry focuses on experimental writing. More mainstream academic poets are now housed in the library’s main collection. To find out more about the origins and scope of the archive, I met with its former curator, Michael Davidson, in a conference room of the literature building. Davidson is nice to look at, attractive and well-groomed — but with more of a human edge than other attractive, well-groomed academics I’ve met. He came prepared with an outline, which he placed on the table in front of him as he spoke in well-formed, comma-driven paragraphs. Beside his organized articulateness, I felt tongue-tied, offering an occasional interrogatory grunt. But each of my questions was treated as an insightful posing. He would lean toward me and say, “That’s an important issue.” This man, I thought, is really good with people.
He is, in fact, one of the most interesting poets in the U.S. today. He spoke about the archive with a sincerity I believed. Issues in contemporary poetry are, of necessity, lived experiences to him rather than mere abstract constructs. The Archive for New Poetry is one of the earliest collections of ephemeral materials in contemporary poetry, explained Davidson. It was established in 1968 by Professor Roy Harvey Pearce as an outgrowth of his research for his “magisterial’’ book The Continuity of American Poetry. Pearce was one of the first scholars to write about what was to be called the “New American” poetry — the Beats; the poets associated with Charles Olson, who was, in the ’50s, the rector of Black Mountain College; and the New York School poets centered around Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. One of Pearce’s arguments is that literary documents are cultural documents, and you need to treat them the same way you treat newspapers and manifestos and other forms of culture. He began collecting a personal library of late-’60s small-press books. When he was done working with them, he would donate them to the library, encouraging the special collections department to house them rather than putting them into the general holdings, where they could be stolen, lost, or defaced.
Eventually Pearce got a research assistant, Kathleen Woodward, to coordinate the Archive for New Poetry. The first papers purchased were those of New York poet Paul Blackburn. The Blackburn Collection, with its vast assortment of audiotapes of contemporary poets, set the tone for further archive purchases. In 1975 Michael Davidson was hired as curator, a half-time position he held until 1985, when he moved full-time to the literature department. Davidson helped systematize collection development, setting up blanket orders with Serendipity Books and Sand Dollar Books, then the definitive Bay Area poetry bookstores. He continued to strengthen the archive holdings in Beat, New York School, and Black Mountain poetry and simultaneously expanded the range to include poets from the U.K., prose by poets. and the controversial L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets.
Commenting upon the breadth of the archive’s holdings, Davidson said, “For us as writers it’s extremely valuable, because otherwise you lose track of things. Who’s going to collect old stapled magazines? It gets lost in the garbage can finally. So somebody has to be collecting this. On the other hand, you start to look at a lot of this material and think, is this really going to survive? If you believe that literary culture is a rather complicated network of documents, all speaking to one another, then it’s necessary to be very comprehensive, and you have to collect stuff that is probably not going to be very significant. If you don’t do it, you’re going to miss it, and then when somebody comes and finds out there was this strand of interesting Dada-oriented work within the New York School and wants to study that, it has to be there someplace. Of course you’re going to be exclusive, you’re going to limit access to some other movements.”
“So what’s excluded?”
“Well, there were not a lot of Chicano writers at Black Mountain College, as far as I know, or in the New York School. This is something the library is thinking about. Recently there was a discussion about how to once again redefine the collection. In 1975 the issue of inclusion was a different problem of inclusion than it is now. Being on the border, I think the UCSD collection has to begin to accommodate other versions of experimentalism beyond purely aesthetic. There have to be linguistic experimentalisms and there have to be lifestyle experimentalisms so that you’re not limited to purely aesthetic criteria. If you’re limited only to the aesthetic criteria, then it seems to me that you’re putatively eliminating folks.”
Since Davidson informed me that the archive currently has a standing order with Small Press Distribution in Berkeley to receive all of SPD’s poetry books, I asked SPD’s buyer Steve Dickison about his de facto curatorial power. Dickison said he tried to stretch what was meant by poetry. “For instance, I even tried to get New Narrative writing like yours into the archive.”
“But Steve,” I exclaimed, “my books aren’t in the archives!” I know this because, when manuscript librarian Brad Westbrook was proudly demonstrating his online catalog and Internet finding aids, he did a search on my name and found nada, zilch. Hello, Internet, I’m here!
Steve seemed a bit surprised and went on to explain that the archive staff doesn’t always agree with his decisions and sometimes sends books back. I imagine a graduate student in the distant future finding an archived letter from me moaning about my exclusion from the archive, my putative elimination. I blush at how petty I will seem, yapping and snapping like a high-strung Chihuahua. A momentary outburst becomes etched in stone for all time. SINCE SORROW NEVER COMES TOO LATE, / AND HAPPINESS TOO SWEETLY FLIES.
Berkeley poet Lyn Hejinian, whose papers were purchased by the archive in 1984, shared her concerns with me about the transitoriness of some of the statements she made in her letters. “If you take letters as a self-portrait, even though they’re intimate and personal, they may not be accurate at all — even though you’re not lying. A letter is momentary.’’
“It’s person specific too.”
“Yes, it’s person specific and day specific. Then one changes over time. And the letter gets in the archive and it looks eternal — the library is the eternal repository of this. There’s a contradiction between the aura of the archive and the aura of the letter.”
In the correspondence from John Ashbery found in the James Schuyler papers, Ashbery underscores the time-specific nature of his letters by signing them with an ever-changing array of pseudonyms: Frank Prince, Flora Finching, Nova Pilbeam, Paul Lambert, J.C. Penney, William Wetmore Story, Baroness Putbus’s maid, Party Crasher, Emilio Schuberth, Garance, Mijanou Bardot, Penny Lane, Cold Power, Dame Nature, Singapore Sue, Peep-Bo, Diet Chocolate Freeze. Beyond the whimsy of these pen names, sometimes signed on Art News stationery, Ashbery is making a statement about the fictive nature of personality. How fitting for a man whose public persona is the polar opposite of the person he presents to friends.
A few years ago, when Ashbery read in San Francisco, his presentation was staid and authoritative, almost intimidating. His responses to Kevin Killian's on-stage interview were guarded, with each word carefully chosen. Afterward I went out for a late dinner with Ashbery and a handful of other writers. To my surprise, we had a rip-roaring time. A very playful and witty Ashbery ordered bottle after bottle of red Spanish wine potent as bull’s blood. Video monitors were mounted on the wall; I remember him pointing to a scene of a little girl running after a man with a jack-o’-lantern for a head. “Return to Oz!" he exclaimed. It’s one of his favorite movies. Afterward we all walked into a plate glass window together.
Literary scholars aren’t the only people who have worked in the archive. The George Oppen collection, for example, is being used to study Alzheimer’s disease. Oppen’s papers give evidence of a man still writing through his Alzheimer’s disease. Medical researchers are looking at Oppen’s papers to see the moment at which his penmanship starts to slide, at which his spelling starts to slide, at which the syntax begins to break down to the point where he can no longer write. Cultural theorist Todd Gitlin has used Paul Blackburn’s audiotapes to trace a record of the ’60s youth movement. “Paul Blackburn,” said Davidson, “used to turn on his tape recorder in his apartment and would record Le Roi Jones and Jackson MacLow and various friends sitting around talking about ‘stuff.’ Then he’d record the moon landing; he’d stick his microphone out the window and record the Lower East Side on a hot summer afternoon; he’d record Billie Holiday singing at a nightclub."
For her course The History of Writing, UCSD professor Stephanie Jed sends students into the archive to work with manuscript materials. “Every time I’ve taught the course,” said Jed, “I’ve asked students to describe the physical properties of manuscripts or typescripts, to really talk about what the paper looks like, what the margins look like, how many different colors of ink there are, what kind of typeface, what state the paper is in. Is it disintegrating? Is it acid-free? How does the writer use the page?
“The purpose is to get the students to start observing that writing has a physical component which actually contributes to the meaning of the text. So, for example, we studied My Life of Lyn Hejinian. A lot of Hejinian’s repeated phrases have to do with paper, for instance, rose-colored paper. One of the repeated phrases is ‘my father lent me his typewriter.’ There’s a lot about the physicality of writing in the text, so I try to get them to look at her typescript to see if there’s something about the process of producing typescript with a typewriter that generates her images and thoughts. And they make interesting connections.
“Since most of the students are writing majors, they are really excited about getting their hands on other living writers’ physical products, so it’s not ten times removed in a mass-produced edition. It’s one-of-a-kind, they know it touched the hands of the writer.”
Books do not spring full grown like Athena out of the poet’s head and into the reader’s hands. Books evolve out of a complex matrix of interactions between the poet and the page, between the poet and his or her peers, between the poet and the culture he or she is tied to, between the poet’s text and countless other texts the poet has encountered. Archives preserve traces of this long, circuitous process.
“People have to think about where poetry is produced,” said Davidson. “Is it only the final thing that's produced in a trade press edition? Publication is only the outer edge of an iceberg. What interests us in a collection like this is the process from the first holograph draft through the typescripts to the small magazine productions to the letters between the editor and the poet about changes to the first edition to the second edition to the anthology edition to the translation into French — we want to be able to cover that big range so that we see the poem not as this Static final thing, but as something that’s in a state of flux. And also that says something about the nature of culture. It is not the ‘best that’s been thought and read.’ It’s a series of conversations among disparate people, some of whom are writers and some of whom aren’t, between texts about what the nature of the health of the art would be.”
When I read literary biographies. I’m stunned by how well-read some writers are in even their most obscure contemporaries. How do writers hear about one another? In the Archive for New Poetry you can read about literary networks, not in retrospect, but as they slowly develop, particularly in the archives of editors of seminal experimental journals, anthologies, and small presses, such as Lyn Hejinian (Tuumba Books, Poetics Journal), Donald Allen (The New American Poetry), and Clayton Eshelman (Caterpillar and Sulfur). The archive also houses manuscripts and correspondence from the files of New York small-book and mimeograph-magazine publisher United Artists and Los Angeles’s Sun and Moon Press.
“I love the letter as a form,” Hejinian told me. “I love to write letters. I love to receive them. And I still write lots of them. I really do think it is a literary enterprise, and I always did, even when I wasn’t thinking of being archived. It was the first workings-out over stages of ideas and the relationship of ideas to other things in life. We were always arguing that our poetry is grounded in the world — ‘us’ like our contemporaries — and that’s really a place where the grounding can begin. You can say, I had this conversation with Dodie today about letter writing, and maybe I’ll write to Charles Bernstein tonight and tell him about this conversation, and I’ll say more about what I think about letters, and it will be an unfolding. I like that unfolding; it’s very process-oriented, letter writing, especially when you write a lot of letters over time to the same person.”
To emphasize the lively dissemination of information and ideas that grows out of literary communities, the archive’s purchases have focused around literary movements. “It seems so odd,” I commented to Michael Davidson, “to have James Schuyler’s papers in San Diego, because he never crossed the Mississippi but once. Have you ever thought of limiting it to California writers?"
“No, it wasn’t going to be a regional collection,” he replied. “If this was going to have national and international appeal, it had to be broader than that. The last thing we wanted was to have a West Coast parochial collection. I don’t think that regions finally mean much. One of the arguments in my book The San Francisco Renaissance [Cambridge, 1989] was, it’s always thought of as a regional movement, but it was made up of people who were born on the East Coast — Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and so on. So the idea was to make the net wider. The etiology of the writers in our collection is traced to aesthetic and social interests and preferences rather than region.”
Because of this national and international scope of the archive, clashes of East and West Coast mentalities frequently emerge. In a letter dated July 30,1976, to Connecticut poet Susan Howe, Berkeley poet Lyn Hejinian writes about the quirkiness of Emily Dickinson:
Do you suppose there is some edgy, queer New England sort
of soul that allows one to tolerate such eccentricities? Here
in California the cult is that of the Mellow, the Laid Back —
yet there’s an underlying tension that makes for a lot of
judging and prejudging. I am picturing a taut, even cruel,
New England mind that is exceedingly tolerant.
Among Ron Silliman’s papers are several letters from Kathy Acker written soon after she moved from San Francisco to New York in the late ’70s. She lampoons the New York scene with her usual flair:
Whenever I touch someone
here, he/she thinks I want to
fuck, so when I don’t, he/she’s
pissed. So I’m now “a tease."
Especially cause my books
made everyone think I’m
Ms. Cunt. Just shows how
uptight New Yorkers are.
Prick Town. Prick Orientation.
What do you mean when
you touch someone?
All the males are shovey about
sex. Let’s get it on. Let’s get
it on. Like there’s a drought.
Given that poetry as a serious pursuit is either belittled or ignored altogether in America, poets form communities out of necessity. As often as not, it is the poets themselves who start up presses and little magazines, run reading series, write essays on other poets’ work. In an interview in Talisman (spring 1990), a magazine edited by New Jersey poet Ed Foster, Susan Howe discusses the broader culture’s resistance to experimental poetry:
I think that one reason there is so much ugly antipathy to
writers who are breaking form in any way is because people
know that language taps an unpredictable power source in
all of us. It’s not the same in the visual arts, where there are
many abstract or form-breaking visual artists who enjoy wide
popularity, are embraced by a critical establishment, and
sell their work for a tremendous amount of money. You will
see their work in museums and books about the work on
large glass coffee tables. Try the same thing with language,
certainly in this culture, and you may find your writing
lost. This is because words are used as buoys, and if they
start to break up...then everything goes because words
connect us to life.
Complaints about marginalization run rampant in the archive’s holdings. Poets are left out of anthologies, not invited to parties, not asked to read. No one will publish their books. Poets are slighted/snubbed/shunned/publicly humiliated. Poets are not written about; poets are written about in a stupid way. Poets hear disturbing gossip. Even someone as famous as Jack Kerouac is not immune. In a letter to Donald Allen dated April 4,1962, Kerouac writes,
Allen [Ginsberg] assures me now the avant garde is putting
me down, which is a laugh [that] can be heard even up on
Mount Malaya (which is the mountain where Buddha
laughed so much he busted his sides, before he could settle
down and deliver the Lankavatara Scripture back-and-forth
with) (who was it?) (Mahamati?) —
To spend a few hours in the archive is to be deluged with a torrent of complaints, snipes, gripes, moans, imprecations. No one comes out unscathed. It’s exhilarating.
I recently ran into Berkeley poet Kit Robinson at the Y. Unlike the Spandex-clad hordes that surrounded him, Robinson wore a pair of loose blue pants with elastic around the ankles. They were made of a thin synthetic space-age material you’d expect to find in suits for astronauts or in tents. We stood beside a Nautilus machine and chatted about our writing. Robinson recalled a discussion he had with Lyn Hejinian in which he bemoaned the marginality of experimental poetry. Hejinian reminded him that marginality is a state that shifts from one situation to the next. “To one’s neighbors,” she said, “you’re marginal.” There is one’s marginality within the larger culture, one’s marginality to mainstream writing — and one’s sense of marginality within various poetry communities. Take mine. As a prose writer, my position among poets ranges from poor relation to respected family member. I’m stimulated by most of the poets I know, but sometimes I secretly dream of breaking away from them altogether into a broader, glossy world of large-press publishing. But then who would I gripe with?
The difference between reading a biography or even a book of correspondence and directly confronting these original documents is akin to the difference between watching an erotic thriller on Cinemax and peeking through a neighbor’s window. Scholarly objectivity soon dissipates. Not surprisingly, some writers have mixed feelings about making their papers available for public consumption. Some poets are shocked when they discover that their letters and manuscripts form a part of another poet’s archives. When I told Eileen Myles I found letters from her in the James Schuyler collection, she exclaimed, “You’re kidding!”
Lyn Hejinian hadn’t sorted through her papers before selling them, and subsequently she had to request that some of her correspondents’ letters be sealed. “There’s some very serious negative aspects to selling one’s letters,” she said, “or to having one’s letters exist in an archive like that, and paramount among them is the question of privacy. Since I was the beneficiary of the money that came in from my letters, it would be slightly disingenuous or two-faced to complain too much about it. I made them public. But it’s come up in conversations or in the form of complaints from people with whom I was corresponding, whose letters I sold, who have felt, for various reasons, unhappy with that decision. Maybe • one of the results of your discussion of it will be of what the ethics of living people selling their own papers should be.
“If I sold what’s accumulated since I sold my papers to San Diego in 1984 — so say if next year I started thinking about selling the next ten years, from ’84 to ’94 — I think I’m going to send a letter to everybody with whom I’ve corresponded and inform them of this decision and give them the option of sealing their papers — to sell them, but sealed. Or to not sell someone’s correspondence.”
Hejinian said the process of getting papers sealed was "extremely easy. I wrote and said that I had realized that this set of letters had no place there, had nothing to do with literature, and revealed stuff about somebody that wasn’t anybody’s business. I asked if I could pull them out; and they wrote back and said that there was a standard procedure for that, which would be that somebody would Xerox all the ones that I mentioned, to make sure they were the right ones, and send them to me. And then I could seal them, and then I could renew the seal, so to speak, every ten years.”
Legally, according to Michael Davidson, a library has the right to buy the papers and the right to disseminate, use, and display that work. The library, however, doesn’t have the right to publish it. Copyright law is very straightforward about what happens when you publish somebody’s work without approval, but in the case of special collections, a lot of people can look at work and photocopy it — without the author’s permission. Davidson himself has had problems with this. “When I found out my own graduate students who were working in the archives were reading my private letters to various poets—they came back and said, ‘Hey, I just read your letters to so and so.’ I said, ‘That’s terrible.’ I wouldn’t want my private life seen by graduate students. I asked that the archive seal those letters.
“The thing that will actually make the difference,” he continued, “is when somebody sues and says this is a violation of privacy. I’ve talked to intellectual-property people, and this is not anything new, it happens all the time. Historical archives are sold every day, and historical archives contain personal papers, and often the persons who wrote letters didn’t know they were going to end up in an archive, so do those people have any rights? Technically they’re protected under the copyright law. That’s been the law of the land, but I have a feeling as the private becomes more public in these circumstances, there are going to be some challenges to that.”
He turned the conversation around to me. “Your letters are probably in some of these collections. Knowing that this is there, would you change your letter-writing habits as a result?”
“I write really personal scandalous letters, but they tend to be to people who wouldn’t be in the archives.”
He laughed. “Well, you say that now, but you wait.”
Though poets may cringe at the thought of strangers reading their personal papers, many are eager to sell. Allen Ginsberg’s papers, which were recently purchased by Stanford, were appraised at $12 million five years ago. “Obtains 300,000 items of poet’s, including a pair of sneakers,” read the headline in the San Francisco Examiner. The next headline, I predict, will be for the sale of Frank O’Hara’s estate. Selling archives has become big business. Or it could be just home redecoration. In Encinitas I visited Jerome Rothenberg and his wife Diane. We drank coffee in their living room amid a colorful assemblage of primitive masks and contemporary art — the Rothenbergs are consummate collectors. Two kittens with gray and black bull’s eye designs on their sides scampered about. Diane spoke of the relief of selling Jerry’s archives to UCSD. “We’d been hauling 20 boxes of papers around the country for years. You wouldn’t imagine the difference in our lives,” she exclaimed, “to have gotten rid of them.”
Poets often enlist book dealers and literary agents to shop their papers around. Dealers receive a commission of upwards of one-third of the price. According to manuscripts librarian Brad Westbrook, the Archive for New Poetry has paid up to $2000 for a one-of-a-kind artist’s book and up to $85,000 for an archive; $20,000 to $50,000 is the normal range. Price depends on the extent of the collection, the importance of the poet and the contents, as well as the competitiveness of the marketplace. While money for the purchase of books and magazines is part of the library budget, a good portion of the money used to buy special collections and rare books is financed by a group of patrons called Friends of the Library.
“For many poets this is their payoff,” Westbrook said matter-of-factly. Lyn Hejinian echoed this sentiment. “It has been for me the sole lucrative thing I’ve done as a poet. I’ve never gotten any money that’s worth speaking of for a poem, not to even mention royalties from books. They’re just pathetic; it’s ludicrous to even think about them. So getting 20, 30, 40, 50 thousand, whatever different people get for their archives — and mine was on the low end because I didn’t have that much stuff at the time, maybe two, three cartons...but I know other people who’ve had up to 25, 30, 40 cartons, and I’ve heard of people getting as much as $200,000 for their papers. It’s kind of like getting paid for the debris of what you really do.”
Not surprisingly, with dreams of big dollars in mind, many poets these days are stockpiling their papers. Then what’s the next step? Why not generate papers that would otherwise not be written? I know the former secretary and boyfriend of one of the poets collected by the archive. Let’s call him Tim. Tim made a cottage industry out of mocking up the poet’s material to sell. This was years ago, when Tim was a junkie and needed lots of money to buy heroin. He’d ask Famous Poet to copy out poem after poem by hand, then Tim would market them as the original manuscript versions. Tim also became adept at forging a number of other poets’ autographs. Tim has since become a clergyman. That’s one scenario. Diane di Prima was spotted at Naropa busily scrawling in an oversized notebook. An old friend said, “Diane, I didn’t know you kept notebooks.” “I didn’t,” she grinned, “but my collector will buy them.” That’s another scenario. I’m reminded of the pom Anais Nin penned for her private collector.
My first night in San Diego, John Granger, former acting curator of the Archive for New Poetry, threw a party in his quaint Hillcrest home, inviting a lively mixture of local poets and former archive employees. On his living room floor, a large stuffed bird in a glass vitrine stood beneath a stunning image/text collaboration by Larry Rivers and Frank O’Hara.
“John, what is that bird thing?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s one of the exhibits from the biology library.” I looked around and spotted other display cases beside the couch and the fireplace. Because Granger teaches a class in nature writing, he’s allowed to check out animals for two weeks at a time. When the two weeks are up, he returns the animals he has and checks out others.
“I could fill this room with a lion if I wanted to.” He knelt down on the wooden floor, “Look at this detail.” I knelt beside him and examined the wild bird’s cocoa-colored feathers intricately etched with creamy dots and lines. “You’d never get this close in nature,” Granger mused. “Isn’t it beautiful — like a Vermeer.”
Yes, it was beautiful, but kind of creepy too — like Norman Bates’s parlor in Psycho, stuffed birds in all directions perched on stands. “My hobby is stuffing things,” he explains to Marion Crane. “You know, taxidermy.... I think only birds look well stuffed because, well, because they are kind of passive to begin with.” A couple of hours later Granger’s display cases were obscured by a mass of poets drinking wine, laughing, gossiping — a far cry from the lofty fetishization of the writer I encountered as a student in comparative literature. Writers were not presented as ordinary people enmeshed in the world, but as foreign creatures embalmed in glass boxes, their texts scattered about their feet like indigenous plants. We never met any. We extracted their symbols and metaphors, wrote dry papers about them. Is what is public dead and what is private alive? Or is there a mysterious convergence between the two?
Surrounded by his stuffed menagerie, Norman Bates removes a painting (culture) from the wall and peers through a drilled hole at Marion in the next room, undressing. Visiting the archives is like that, that peering.
Because the archive houses the papers of both Susan Howe and Lyn Hejinian, I was able to read both sides of their lengthy correspondence, which extends from the mid-’70s to the mid- '80s. Out of the web of Howe and Hejinian’s personal lives, their relationships with family and friends, their financial difficulties, medical crises, their literary struggles and insecurities, their passionate devouring of books, emerges a rigorous intellectual exchange that is always grounded in the onrush of experience.
Both women are keenly attuned to the primal eroticism of language. Hejinian introduces the topic in a letter dated May 29, 1983:
I have been thinking quite a lot about Eros and language of
late. There are one’s sensual involvement with words in the
making and reading of a poem, and the compulsion to write
and read more poems (the love of poetry — very different
from the love of books). But even more than that, desire seems
to motivate, not language but our use of language.
When I was on the panel (“Who Is Speaking? The
Power of Discourse”) listening to people in the audience
express their feelings before, during, and after speaking in
public — the heart beating faster, the flush, the inability to
attend to anything else that was going on until one got the
chance to say what one had to say, the slumping back in
one’s chair when one had asked one’s question or said one’s
thought, the let down, near remorse. Sounds like Eros to me.
In her book The Birth-Mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history (1993), Howe examines the erotic impulse behind marginalia, those underlinings, stars, exclamation points, and words we are driven to dash off as we read texts. “Erogenous zones are ineludibly linked to the unconscious. The devil in the manuscript. Repression says to write notes on it." Interestingly, Howe continuity annotates her own letters. The unusually wide margins of many of the letters leave ample room for this. In a letter dated June 12, 1982, she types, “I even think that Poetry is deeply mystical and even Religious. There I have said the awful word.” An arrow extends from “Religious" into the left margin, where Howe writes by hand “without God." In the right margin, again in longhand, she adds,
It is Jubilant
and un political. It is
FREE. Beginning where
philosophy leaves off....
These handwritten afterthoughts give a sense of energy, passion, pressing importance.
This human urge to write on things is probably why only pencils are allowed in the archive reading room. I have to wait until I get my photocopies home to doodle all over Howe’s letters, my red ink effusions jarring against her own margin notes. When I phoned Howe in Connecticut recently, her answering machine gave a number in Buffalo, where she teaches in the poetics department of the State University of New York. I frantically looked around for a pen to take it down with, but the only thing within reach was a lipstick, not the tube kind, but a fat pencil that you sharpen. Susan Howe’s phone number scribbled across the top of my address book in matte mocha, now that’s a page to contemplate.
A few months ago, one of the poets beloved by Jack Spicer committed suicide in his San Francisco apartment. John Allen Ryan was dead for three weeks before the body was found. He left a note and a huge amount of food out for his cat. My husband agreed to help Ryan’s stepmother sort through his mountains of papers, an especially daunting task sirnie Ryan’s long, sprawling apartment still reeked with the stench of death. I was sitting up in bed reading when Kevin returned home. His face was flushed with excitement; his clothes and hair smelled like putrid alcohol. “Look what she gave me, Dodie!” He thrust a file folder at me. I recoiled. “Look at this, a letter, an original letter from Jack Spicer!” “Kevin, I think you should take a shower.” Not just to touch but to possess, a paring from Lenin’s fingernail, a chip of bone from a patron saint.
At the bottom of an undated letter Howe scrawls, “ALL THE WORLD IS A MADHOUSE” Norman Bates knew about madhouses. “Have you ever seen the inside of those places?” he barked at Marion Crane. “The laughing and the tears and the cruel eyes studying you.” “But Susan,” I said to myself, “my eyes aren’t cruel. They adore you.”
In the title story of her new book, Chelsea Girls (Black Sparrow Press), New York poet Eileen Myles interweaves a raucous tale of seduction and alcohol with her job of caring for the ailing James Schuyler at the Chelsea Hotel:
Jimmy was so big. He was like an enormous sunflower lying
on the bed of his long skinny room with French windows
that opened onto clanging noisy twenty-third street. It was
a street I knew nothing about till I worked for Jimmy. The
Chelsea was a myth loaded with old denizens, Europeans from
the 60s, rock bands and then Jimmy and Virgil Thomson.
He was so skinny when I met him and now he was so fat.
You look a little weathered dear. I do! Well, I put the pan
of water onto the stove. I’ve got a girl upstairs. A friend
staying in the hotel. No we’re having sex, I met her last night.
I was with Chris in this bar, she kind of forced me into it.
I’m sure she did. Actually standing in Jimmy’s kitchen such
a regular thing felt strange in a way that fucking in the
On a Friday evening in February 1989, I attended James Schuyler’s reading at the San Francisco Art Institute. Since it was the renowned recluse’s second poetry reading ever, the packed auditorium was buzzing with excitement. Schuyler read for 40 minutes in a dignified rumble, mostly his “nature poetry,” with little reference to illness, drinking, or sex. He looked professorial yet vulnerable sitting in his brown suit behind a table arranged with a soft blue cloth, cobalt blue pitcher, and white mug decorated with a red-and-yellow floral pattern. The book in his hand trembled, betraying his self-possessed delivery.
The following Sunday afternoon, I visited Schuyler at a friend’s home where he was staying. Schuyler, who was wearing khaki-colored high-top canvas shoes, sat in an easy chair drinking a can of Tab. He was quiet but kindly, commenting upon how particularly beautiful was the light that filtered through the bay window. His conversation was casual and free of pretension, the topics ranging from diet sodas to his long association with John Ashbery to his friendship with Myles to Barbie dolls, how Barbie’s feet are deformed to fit her high heels. As with his poetry, the humility and the dailiness Schuyler exhibited that Sunday afternoon seemed at odds with his gargantuan reputation.
In Chelsea Girls, Myles expresses her thrill at meeting the person behind the myth:
The first day I stood facing him, a thin man with long curly
hair rigidly lying on his bed I blurted out I love your poems.
He said thank you. His friends, a painter and a dealer were
standing nearby. They needed someone to spend some time
with him and give him his drugs. Say your favorite poet in
the world is lying there. Who you've always been told is
unmeetable, has nervous breakdowns, is a recluse into SM.
Just out of the hospital, almost killed himself. Jimmy Schuyler
was my new job. Slowly I moved his possessions to the
Chelsea from an 8th Avenue flophouse where on the final
day among the dry cleaned clothes still in plastic bags, charred
bits of poetry on papers, art prints books — I masturbated
because it was a filthy and interesting place and he found
out because I told one person who told someone else. It's
all right dear I don't need anything. Go have fun.
Among Schuyler’s papers at UCSD, I happened upon a file marked “Eileen Myles.” To my dismay, the thin folder consisted mostly of postcards and hand-written notes attached to manuscripts she’d given Schuyler to read. Finally I spied a two-page letter typed on pale blue paper. Scrawled at the top was, “The grotesque stationery is not mine.” Dated February 20, the letter begins, “Hi Jim just a little blue note to say hello.
“Isn’t this typewriter nice?” she continues, “I feel like I’ve 'become’ an office. Aren’t quotes meaningless? I used to use them to prove I was hip to John Ashbery. Look where that got me.” One of the stylistic quirks of Chelsea Girls, as seen in these passages, is its lack of quotation marks. Picture a graduate student of the future fingering this letter, using it to pinpoint the date of Myles’s artistic independence from Ashbery. Or a cultural theorist expanding the quotation marks controversy into the divorce of lesbianism and homosexuality. In the course of the letter, Myles recounts a recent exploit:
Around the first night I was here I went around the corner
to the neighborhood bar, the birches, with dog (a great black
lab who I don't fuck) and bike and never got home. I got
the bartender convinced I would bring him home with me
if I was drunk enough which was a distinct possibility as the
margaritas grew more and more vicious but then I saw some
fellow at the other side of the bar and started yelling over to
him so he came over & we wound up together in what I was
told was one of DeKooning's studios but this guy was renting
As I read this passage to Myles over the phone, she interrupted me. “That’s already more than I remember.” Myles is juggling the raw materials of Chelsea Girls, drinking, promiscuity, tortured relationships, theft — but here they’re removed from the crafted abstractions of the “story," the generalizations of memory. This specific encounter exists in a hangover-toned morning, with Myles drinking tea while house-sitting in East Hampton, planning to take a shower, inscribed on blue paper she thinks is grotesque, typed in a sans serif font, letter gothic.
Searching for gossip and scandal in the archive is like diving for pearls, requiring incredible patience. You have to leave the compressed time frame of a novel or a biography and enter the more languorous and meandering real-time experience of the soaps, where you kind of zone out on the ordinary, and when you least expect it, jewels thrill you. However, opening Kathy Acker’s folder in the Ron Silliman archive is like having a whole necklace of pearls bob up at you, strung and gleaming in a Cartier box. Acker zips through so many hilarious accounts of the bed-hopping of the New York School poets, you need a scorecard to keep track of who’s sleeping with or even who’s married to whom. Then there’s Acker’s own bed-hopping and her horrified confrontations with East Coast hyperprofessionalism.
Acker’s presence in the Silliman collection reminds us of her roots in the West Coast avant garde poetic community. Her round, carefully sketched, childlike handwriting on squarish blue-lined pages ripped from a spiral notebook gives a sense of vulnerability sometimes lost in the aggressive prose gymnastics of her books. In lieu of her name, she often signs her letters with a stick-figure drawing of a spider. Surprising insights into her craft emerge as she discusses her dance classes, the connections she’s forming between body-consciousness and language. She grapples with new ways to use language, to move beyond psychology to myth-making. Stanislavsky’s theories of acting open new vistas to her in terms of the creation of reality, or meaning. Acker’s novels take on another dimension for me when I view her characters as not merely living their experiences but as always acting.
I couldn’t get enough of her, so I requested her folder from Jerome Rothenberg’s archive. When I initially discovered Acker in the archive finding guides, in parentheses after her name were the letters TBT. I pointed them out to the woman at the front desk. “What does this mean? Are her letters sealed or what?” The woman was perplexed and suggested I check the key of abbreviations. It was no help. Finally, in a letter to Rothenberg I found the answer. She signs it, “The Black Tarantula (TBT),” after the title of one of her early books. So that’s what the stick figure spiders in her letters to Silliman were about. Then I pulled out a real gem, a long, typed excerpt from Acker’s diaries. On page 13 Acker’s confessional ramblings turn to her amorous fantasies of Rothenberg. My eyeballs poked out like binoculars. This was as awesome as when, outside the library, I stood facing the six-foot-tall Milton’s Paradise Lost. I embraced the passage etched across the cover:
Then wilt thou not
be loth to leave
but shalt possess
a paradise within
thee, happier far.
I looked up and Rothenberg was standing right in front of my table, as if Acker and I, the combined charges of our titillations, had summoned him. He was doing research on the anthology he’s editing with Pierre Joris. Quickly I covered Acker’s diary with one hand and with the other nonchalantly turned the spine of the archive box that glared out ROTHENBERG away from him. “Oh, hi, Jerry, how’s it going?”
Back in San Francisco, my tiny study is crammed with materials from my visit: letters to and from friends before my trip; copies of my letters to Jerome Rothenberg and John Granger thanking them for their hospitality; audiotapes of Michael Davidson, Lyn Hejinian, Stephanie Jed; my private diary (with ideas about archiving interspersed with X-rated passages, rough drafts of my next novel, adolescent moanings); piles of computer printouts; a marked-up offprint of Davidson’s essay on opening the Oppen archives; a newspaper clipping ripped out of the San Francisco Examiner; an autographed copy of Susan Howe’s The Birth-Mark with heavy marginalia throughout in green, red, and blue pen; the steno book I took notes in during my visit; pounds of photocopied correspondence and journal articles marked with fluorescent yellow marker and red pen; receipts from the trip; a letter from manuscripts librarian Brad Westbrook. Ephemera is such a beautiful word for all this garbage. That which was meant to be discarded. In the past I would have thoughtlessly chucked most of it, but now as I survey this mound of rare archival material, dollar signs flash in my pupils.
I began a letter to New York poet and art critic John Yau. “I never found the eyeballs letter,” I began, “but it was a good trip." Then as I turned to the personages I had met in San Diego, I felt unusually inhibited. I remembered lounging in John Granger’s back yard with San Diego poet Rae Armantrout, sipping sidecars and listening to Ferrante and Teicher. The good life. “Archiving has changed the way letters are written,” Armantrout announced. Just inside the kitchen doorway stood a stuffed duck in a vitrine. “Poets are either more careful of what they put down in a letter — or they see their letters as public documents, writing letters intended to be archived.” Perhaps ignorance is bliss. John Yau is a major enough figure to be an archive candidate. Dare I entertain him by calling a mutual friend “smarmy”? Years from now to prying anonymous eyes, will it matter?
The phone rang. It was poet Michael Gizzi calling from upstate New York. When I brought up archives, he moaned and told me how some of his letters were included in Clark Coolidge’s archives. When Cid Corman read what Gizzi had written about him, Corman flipped out. I hung up and returned to my computer, jumpy as Norman Bates. “You know what I think,” he leaned forward and intoned to Marion Crane. “I think we are all in our private traps. Clamped in them and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it we never budge an inch.”
How long do emotions cling to words? What would it be like to come across a letter written 15 years ago in which a friend dishes me in a gasp of frustration? We’re all paranoid to a certain degree; we all expect that others are talking about us. Why shouldn’t they? We certainly talk enough about them. Do personal slights have a time limit, or are they like the IRS, reaching endlessly backwards, demanding retribution? “Smarmy” is such a great word. Did I use it? Yau only knows. For now.