The great booksellers act as Virgils guiding their clients through the underworld of book collecting. For at various stages book collecting is a hell, a purgatory and a paradise. When I first started collecting William Burroughs, John LeBow urged me to widen my scope. At a bookfair in NYC, he suggested I buy several issues of Dan Saxon’s Poets of Le Metro. At the time, I had no idea what that legendary magazine was. Burroughs was not in it; how could it possibly relate to Burroughs. I passed. That decision was one of the great mistakes of my book collecting career.
Literary historians are also guides and Daniel Kane, Reva Wolf and Clay/Phillips proved to me without a doubt that Saxon’s mags are pivotal in understanding Burroughs’s career in mid-1960s New York City. Carol Berge is yet another Virgil. Her account of the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference, published by Fuck You Press, is essential reading for getting an eye-witness account of that pivotal event in post-WWII literary history. Posthumously, she has done it again with her soon-to-be published collection of memoirs by the participants of the Lower East Side coffeehouse scene of the early to mid 1960s: Light Years: an Anthology on Sociocultural Happenings (Multimedia in the East Village, 1960-1966).
LeBow prepared me for Berge’s book light years before it came into my hands. Soon after he offered me Poets of Le Metro and Poets of Les Deux Megots, he pressed me to buy a broken run of Fuck You, a magazine of the arts. As I remember he had nine or ten of the thirteen issues as well as The Marijuana Newsletter, The Toe Queen Poems and Bugger: An Anthology. LeBow stressed that this was a unique opportunity for me to expand my collection. Luckily Burroughs was in an issue of Fuck You so I bought the lot.
Berge’s anthology makes clear that Fuck You, like Saxon’s publications, chronicled the gossip and goings-on of the Lower East Side coffeehouse scene. You always hear that Fuck You is a product of a Secret Location on the Lower East Side (18 Cordelia Street, the Phoenix Bookshop), but it really comes right out of the LSE’s public institutions like Le Metro, Les Deux Megots, Café Cino, Café Le Mama, Café Wha?, Stanley’s Bar, and a host of others. Berge’s book with its essays by those on the scene (David Antin, Kirby Congdon, Philip Corner, Fielding Dawson, Allen and Don Katzman, Rochelle Owens, Carolee Schneemann, Jerome Rothenberg, Armand Schwerner are just a few) makes this world come alive.
Flip through the list of contributors to Fuck You and you will get a good sense of the contributors of Light Years, but three people stand apart for me. Carol Berge, Jackson Mac Low, and Paul Blackburn. For me, Blackburn is the Virgil of the Light Years scene. Poets of Le Metro, Poets of Les Deux Megots and Fuck You are incredible publications but the true strength of the Light Years group was the poetry readings. Blackburn was instrumental in not only organizing the readings but in recording them for posterity. His collection of tapes provides the soundtrack for Berge’s book of essays. One of the great things about Daniel Kane’s All Poets Welcome was the CD that came with it.
Many contributors to Light Years make the case that this moment in time ended when the venue shifted from Le Metro to St. Mark’s Church, and Joel Oppenheimer, not Blackburn, was chosen to head the project. Blackburn was still intimately involved at the Poetry Project, but something was lost in the translation, an art of which Blackburn was a master. Blackburn’s translation of Provencal troubadours helped move the poetry of the Lower East Side off the page into performance, and eventually artists, like Vito Acconci, would move further and further away from written poetry. As the 1960s drew to a close, the body transformed into a page to be marked, mutilated and manipulated.