During the Eisenhower years, the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit hung suspended over the rapidly growing artistic and political consciousness of the young like a bloated advertising zeppelin ready to explode. It was the beginning of radical artistic experimentation. The poets, playwrights, filmmakers, painters, sculptors, and performing artists were inventing, finding, producing, gathering, analyzing, and selecting the groundwork for those who came later, including the pop culture heroes of the billion-dollar rock music business. The place to be was New York or San Francisco.
In 1956, I was working for the Poetry Society of America and became a member after submitting some poems to the committee of jurors. My work was experimental and reflected even then an important concern of mine, a response to the need for the dynamism of the word, a dynamic charged with evolution and change–those basics to living form. Language, image, movement change themselves according to the multifaceted structure of the world. The smug, entombed "literary club" of the Poetry Society of America was not the environment for an idealistic twenty-year-old who had intuited that art was supposed to be surprise, discovery, and possibly even fulfillment. When I think of that period, it is like a stage set showing several doors: I'm rushing out of one marked the Poetry Society to find myself mysteriously in front of other doorsmarked in bleeding red paint, Les Deux Megots, St. Marks Poetry Project, Cafe Cino, Hardware Poets Theatre, La Mama E.T.C., Judson Poets' Theatre, and Theatre Genesis. Those seed-beds of aspirations and rebellion on the lower east side of New York.
It was the beginning edge of the sixties, and rampant sexism was valued among the good ole boys. The race of "poets" was male. Open season on women is a venerable literary tradition, and writers such as Joyce Cary and Henry Miller provided role-model qualities to a couple of generations of "brilliant new novelists and poets." Woman as a metaphor took on flesh, blood, and bone when a stumpy, brisquet-of-beef-shaped, breast-fed-till-eighteen-months, Harvard graduate, a genius of course—Norman Mailer—and the snot-glistening-eyed doberman-headed zombie and ikon of proto-punk-culture—William S. Burroughs—stabbed and shot their wives. Burroughs actually killed his. Valerie Solanas' Charles Bronson shooting spree attack on the seamless tupperware body of Andy Warhol was a blast of revenge from the bowels of clear-eyed Artemis.
In 1958, during the Vietnam War, the trial and execution of a killer named Caryl Chessman, as well as an anxious brief marriage, I wrote my first play, Futz. I had been working as a clerk in the accounting department of Sothby-Parke Bernet Galleries. Among the customers were Greta Garbo, Ali Khan, and Katharine Hepburn. The early drafts of the play were typed on lot statements and sheets torn from the daily calendar. Between sales, during the slow periods I would work, secretly, on my play. In the evenings at home I'd eagerly work for hours, transcending everyday reality with the surprises of artistic creativity. I had sent some poems to Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Rexroth, and both had responded with warmth and enthusiasm. Ginsberg put me in touch with the young poet and playwright LeRoi Jones who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka. Jones published a poetry magazine called Yugen. I remember how happy I was to be included among its contributors: Charles Olson, Tristan Tzara, Daisy Aldan, Jack Kerouac, Frank O'Hara, and Paul Blackburn, who later became a good friend. In 1961, Trobar published my first collection of poems, Not Be Essence That Cannot Be, and a new book by Paul Blackburn. Countless friends used to collect in the apartment I shared with George Economou on the upper west side to collate and bind our little reviews and books. Afterward, we usually feasted on French pastry and dessert wine—and occasionally smoked cigars. Jones published a group of my poems in an anthology entitled Four Young Lady Poets. It was not surprising that, when I edited the anthology of plays Spontanous Combustion ten years later in 1972, a play of Roi's was included. Years later I discovered that his dad, like mine, had been a post-office clerk. Roi and his wife Hettie lived in an apartment on the lower east side—where they welcomed writers and artists at anytime, day ornight. Occasionally I'd visit them after work.
Enter Fee Dawson, a beer-bellied WASP who was one of the most viperish misogynists that ever slung a scrotalsac between hind-quarters. At some point that summer evening in 1960, Dawson focused his oyster-colored eyes on me and began to scream about how I represented all that was wrong with the middle west—how "bourgeois" I looked, critical, unsexy, and how I reminded him of his old-maid aunt or sister. Drunk and shitily obnoxious, he howled a demand that I pull out my checkbook and buy a painting of his. At the time, I thought it was because I was wearing horn-rimmed glasses, a black-and-white polka-dot dress with a full nylon crinoline slip that created a graceful umbrella-effect, black patent leather pumps, and a wide red patent-leather belt. I worked in an office as a typist-clerk, and it would not have been appropriate for me to dress "arty" wearing a leotard, an Indian paisley skirt, and viscous brown leather Roman sandals—the bohemian look that was de rigueur at the time. Besides, that look was not me. Judith Malina had also objected to my taste in clothes. She had ridiculed me for dressing like a suburban housewife.
As Dawson ranted, Hettie came to my defense, saying that I came from Brooklyn and not the midwest, and that I was a wonderful poet whom Roi was publishing in his magazine Yugen. Dawson grumbled something about wanting more beer and sandwiches and scurried off like a fat crab toward the Jones' refrigerator, opened the door, pulled out food, baby bottles belonging to the two baby daughters of Hettie and Roi, beer bottles, apple juice bottles, cranberry juice bottles, date juice bottles, eggs, frankfurters, grapefruits, honey bottles, ice cubes from the freezer, feta cheese, jam jars, ketchup, kaiser rolls, lemons, marmalade and matzoh, nutcake, oleo-margarine, peanut-brittle, quince-jam, rugala salad, salami, tiny carrots, ugly fruit imported from occupied Palestine ordered specially for Roi, virgin olive oil, waxy yellow beans, extra-rich unpasteurized cottage cheese, yellow yams, and zucchini bread, laid them out on the floor, ogled an "earthy-looking broad" built like a "brick shithouse" named Margaret Randall, and on fat buttocks and calves inched stalwartly through the foodstuffs toward the open-mouthed surprised girl.
The 1960s. I see us all, like collaged mildewed fragments of aphoto overlapping, quasi-mythic types that typified the poetry scene of the time. At Les Deux Megots in the East Village, before it was transformed into Soho, the gender of the poets was predominantly male. Short, tall, lean, hammy, dry, oily, whitish, sallow, hairy, smooth, foul, neat, bloated, calcified, spotted, or monochromatic. I never considered why "we girls" were such a minority. It was just the way things were. "We girls" spiraled, circled, and soared around like fireflies in righteous effort to claim our true identity as poets. We were the fierce witnesses in a new wilderness. Susan Sherman, Ree Dragonette, Mary Mayo, Carol Berge, Wakoski with her ice-cube-thick lenses which reduced her orbs to smashed mosquitos, her cheeks and chin puffing out tenderly like a Cabbage Patch Doll. And always the late Barbara Holland; she died a few years ago, a unique and heroic figure of tragic New England rage and revenge on the patriarchal system. Her appearance and style was to systematically offend respectable bourgeois society. But she didn't do it with the showy deliberate posturing of an Ed Sanders. During her reading performance, her face composed of gray angles, of bone and shadow, her lips and nostrils twisted, spread, kicked and jerked out accusation and contempt. The jagged edge of her voice bit into your throat. Her body odor was strong and her eye-glasses filthy—you could actually see a layer of muck on them. Like the words of Sinatra's song, she did it her way.
The Village and East Village of the sixties was a point of origins for my life as a poet and playwright. No matter how far these directions eventually took me from that time and place, they remain for me, as for so many others, the golden age of beginnings. Yes, those were the days, my friends.