March 16, 2008
Off The Shelf by Doug Holder
The Squawk Coffeehouse is a throwback to the bohemian coffeehouses of
yore, with ample doses of off-key, off-the-wall, outside-of-the box
poetry and song. Presided over by resident Somerville bohemes Lee
Kidd and Jessa Piaia, Squawk located at the Harvard Epworth Church,
1555 Mass Ave., Cambridge (just outside Harvard Square), is a refuge
for those of us who are still beatniks and hippies at heart. The
doors for the readings open at 9 p.m. on Thursdays, and the readings
usually last till 12 a.m. or so.
On Thursday, March 27, "Squawk" is going to host the poet, historian,
and musician Ed Sanders, (opening for Sanders will be the musical
group Dagmar2). Sanders is the doyen of the sensibility that
"Squawk" embodies. Sanders is the founder of the FUGS ( a variation
on a popular four letter word coined by Norman Mailer in his
groundbreaking novel "The Naked and the Dead") an influential 60's
avant-garde folk/rock band, as well as the publisher of the much
sought after "F--k You: A Magazine of the Arts." He cut his teeth in
the Lower East Side of NYC from around 1960 to 1970 and in his
introduction to his autobiographical novel "Tales of Beatnik Glory"
he writes of this once in a lifetime milieu:
"Many of the stories are set in the Lower East Side of New York City,
where I lived from 1960 to 1970. The 60's were particularly intense
in the Lower East Side, and I was in the middle of it as a publisher
of numberless mimeographed tracts and literary magazines, and as the
operator of the Peace Eye Bookstore, a cultural center and the
location for some of the stories… It was at the Peace Eye Bookstore
in late 1964 that Tuli Kupferberg and I founded the satiric
anarcho-poetic folk ensemble known as the Fugs."
Besides "Tales of Beatnik Glory," Sanders is the author of "America,
A History in Verse," "1968, A History in Verse," "The Poetry and Life
of Allen Ginsberg," and others. He currently lives in Woodstock, NY
where he publishes "The Woodstock Journal." I conducted an interview
with Sanders recently:
Doug Holder: What made you drop out of the University of Missouri and
head to Greenwich Village?
Ed Sanders: I headed for New York University, at first to study math
and rocket science; but switched to classics after a few semesters of
the glory of Greek. I had many good times at the University of
Missouri, but, since I was already steeped in current poetry
movements, I wanted to be close to where I perceived the glowing
nexus resided, and that was New York City.
DH: You wrote your first poem (a long one) on toilet paper. You sent
it to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the founder of City Lights, and he
published your first book. Can you tell me about the poem-- and what
brand of toilet paper?
ES: Jail paper. I wrote Poem from Jail in two formats: on the backs
of the insides of cigarette packs, and on toilet paper, which I kept
hidden in my cell, since writing was forbidden. The poem is a long
meditation on the Demeter-Persephone myth, plus material on Herman
Kahn's Doomsday Machine, and from I.F. Stone's "Hidden History of the
When I was released, I managed to smuggle out one copy of the Poem
from Jail in my tennis shoe, all wadded up under my foot; then typed
it, and mailed it to Lawrence Ferlinghetti who, to my everlasting
gratitude, published it in 1963.
DH: Your book "Tales of Beatnik Glory" deals with your times in the
Lower East Side of NYC in the late 50s and 60s. It seemed possible
then to live the "Bohemian" life on the cheap. Can kids "afford" to
live that way in today's climate?
ES: No rent control now. A person of youth needs three jobs: one for
the rent, one for the art, and one for the fun.
DH: Ginsberg's " Howl" was a great liberating influence on you when
you were a kid. Did it break you out of the corseted 1950's
ES: It seemed to liberate my consciousness in a way that many of the
strictures of my upbringing had prevented, although I was raised by
literature-encouraging, liberal parents. It helped me became an
"American Bard," that is, a poet who takes public stances.
DH: Everything is high tech these days. You were part of the
"Mimeograph Revolution" You put out a magazine "F--k You: A Magazine
of the Arts." Can you tell me about the nuts and bolts of putting out
a small press magazine back then. What did "F--k You" offer its readers?
ES: We were on the cutting edge, as they say, of the then-current
poetry scene: published Ginsberg, DiPrima, Robert Duncan, Creeley,
Olson's 'Maximus,' William Burroughs, Auden, Snyder, Dorn, and many,
many others. It was given away free, and was much sought out during
its three year run.
The actual mechanics of typing stencils and operating a small
hand-cranked mimeo machine can be found, say, in my story, in "Tales
of Beatnik Glory, Volume 1, "An Editorial Conference."
DH: You wrote a book "1968: A History in Verse." Is '68 the most
pivotal year in that decade?
ES: 1968 showed the best and worst of a great nation. With its
assassinations and broken dreams, riots and rebellion; but also its
music and poetry, it's awful war that went on for another 7 years;
but also the Prague Spring, Columbia, Paris, the riots of Chicago and
the rise of Nixon, the break-down of the Democratic Party just three
years after Johnson's Great Society.
DH: You were influenced by the Beats. Do you pick up "On the Road"
with the same enthusiasm now as you did when you were a young writer?
ES: "On the Road" is not quite as good as many other novels of the
century. I was more of a "Howl" fan than a Kerouacian.
DH: Can you describe how you became associated with SQUAWK, and what
keeps you coming back?
ES: Well, I love that beautiful church. Its vibes are so powerful and
historic. And Lee and Jessa have been friends since the time of the
1995 Beat Conference at New York University. They embody the best of
the Community Spirit-helping all enjoy the fruits of poesy and
center-left political power: the joy of freedom, and the strength of