by Richard Peabody
In March of 1980, Michael Martone did something extraordinary — inviting a motley crew of indie press folks up to Johns Hopkins University. Martone, a student at the Sems, had begun a subversive mag with fellow Hoosier Michael Wilkerson, which they dubbed Indiana Mon Amour. The conceit? You had to write about Indiana to be eligible for inclusion. The concept a chippy response to the workshop lip service to “place” and very much in keeping with those two madcap zealots. Their zine experience plugged them directly into the indie mindset, which may or may not have been prevalent on the Homewood campus at that time.
I thank them both for the invitation to be part of their “People’s Republic of Reading Series.” Because we were a bunch of non-university affiliated long-haired bearded freaks (save for John Elsberg who worked as a book editor for the US Army and who we all mistakenly thought was British) gathered together in that huge auditorium. Sprawling? That’s how I remember it. Eager students as far as the eye could see. We were an alternative to the Canon, a strange and heady brew. And I don’t believe any of us had ever read our work in a university setting before.
And who was that nefarious motley crew? Jesse Glass, whose Goethe’s Notes Magazine and press were published in Westminster, MD. Imagine avant-garde postcards, broadsides and a zine surrounded by a sea of rednecks. (He’d actually graduated from the Sems in 1979 and was the most experimental of our crew having helped Richard Kostelanetz with Assembling Magazine and he was already into Concrete poetry); Steven Ford Brown from Birmingham, Alabama, where his Thunder City Press and Thunder Mountain Review held reign; the rest of us from suburban Maryland and Virginia — John Elsberg, American Editor for the British mimeo zine Bogg, founded in 1968 by George Cairncross in Filey, North Yorkshire. (They’d just printed their 44th issue and John was soon to upgrade the printing and design by having the work done in the US by an offset printer in Annapolis, MD); Fiction writer Kevin Urick, whose magazine The Mill and White Ewe Press were based in College Park, MD. The press had recently published Oregon writer Al Drake’s In the Time of Surveys and George Myers Jr.’s first fiction collection, Nairobi; and me with Gargoyle Magazine based in Bethesda, MD. I’d just printed issue #14, which featured interviews with Hindenburg author Michael Mooney, local Sci Fi legend Ted White, and renegade pre-Beat writer/editor Chandler Brossard, and part of Raging Joys, Sublime Violations his novel-in-progress. Continuing with the Beat Generation theme the issue also featured Michael Horovitz (the British Ginsberg), Charles Plymell (a collage and an essay on “The Blues”), Herbert Huncke (the “Elsie” chapter of his autobiography), along with an interview with poet Janine Pommy Vega.
We’d also printed our first two Paycock Press books — Michael Brondoli’s Love Letter Hack about which —
“It’s a well written tale, with a nicely exotic flavor. He does indeed have a lot of talent. He also has a good sense of what a story is and how it ought to unfold.” -Guy Davenport
“A first book from this press, and a very fine beginning, indeed. A very touching and wryly humorous account of love and absence from home.” – Library Journal
along with Harrison Fisher’s Blank Like Me.
Harrison was one of the best DC poets of the late 70’s, bar none. He wrote some lyrics for local band Tru Fax and the Insaniacs. BLM was his 6th book in a matter of 3 years. Lots of language play. Harrison, like Brondoli, was connected to the Providence Baroque scene that orbited around Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop’s Burning Deck Press. (Providence poet Tom Ahern designed the cover.) The book is divided into two parts — “Immunization & Society” and “White Zombie.” The latter makes use of B-movie horror titles. I haven’t encountered anybody since who possessed such diabolical wit save maybe Susan Smith Nash.
So what happened? Well, we shared our publishing experiences, traded anecdotes with the students, and then it was time to read our work. This was my 11th ever reading and I’d gone from riding in like a rebel hero to feeling completely out of place. What were we doing reading to MFA students? I was almost 30. I started with a joke poem and they laughed and then everything went fine.
I’m sure Jesse Glass read his long “Mayakovsky Is Dead” poem.
Point your Poetry Gun in the air:
bang! bang! bang! Comrade.
He had three chapbooks out at the time, plus Closed Casket, a play that had been performed in The Netherlands. I’m sure John Elsberg read from his chapbooks Walking, as a Controlled Fall and The Price of Reindeer. Kevin Urick might have read part of his experimental western The Death of Colonel Johns, or some of the stories from his Nakedness collection. Steven would have read some of his surreal poems from Apples that are Mirrors, Mirrors that are Apples and Against the Old Propellers of the Twilight. I read from my first book of poems I’m in Love with the Morton Salt Girl.
Why the stroll down memory lane? Well, a couple of reasons. John Elsberg passed away from cancer late in 2011 and I miss him and the rest of the old crew. And nothing like that auspicious March 10th ever happened again. Martone at that time had published one fiction chapbook, At a Loss, and though he was a couple years younger than most of us, he was a peer in every meaning of the word. We were a comfortable crew, hungry to get published, hungry to discover some poets or writers among those gathered in the audience. The big name conferences weren’t interested in small fry like us, so the entire experience was a heady, raucous, educational joyride.
I remember eating at a great Italian place with Martone, writer Gina Maranto, and poet Theresa Pappas (Martone’s wife to be). Was Wilkerson there? Neither of us can remember. Wilkerson won the Elliott Coleman Award in Fiction Writing at Hopkins that year before becoming the director of the Ragdale Foundation, eventually landing at Indiana University where he remains to this day. Martone has of course gone on to be a driving force at Fiction Collective 2, to teach at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and to produce an impressive shelf of fiction, faux travelogue, essays, and anthologies. Steven Ford Brown is in Boston publishing translations of work by Juan Carlos Galeano, Jorge Carrera Andrade, Angel Gonzalez, while also working as a music critic. Kevin Urick taught law school at the University of Maryland in Baltimore for many years and is now a practicing attorney in Elkton, MD. Jesse Glass runs Ahadada Press (among other things) and is a Professor of American Literature at Meikai University in Chiba, Japan.
We were all so young. We were all so passionate. I thought at the time that our combined energy was going to have a real impact. A lot of chapbooks, and books, and magazines were born of those times. Some of us are even still slinging words out into the ether.
Richard Peabody is the author of a novella, three short story collections, and seven poetry books. He is a native Washingtonian and teaches fiction writing at Johns Hopkins University, where he received the Faculty Awards for Distinguished Professional Achievement and Teaching Excellence. He is also the Beyond the Margins Above and Beyond 2013 Award winner for his outstanding service to the Washington, D.C. literary community, and he is Eckleburg‘s Patron Saint of Indie. He is the founder and co-editor of Gargoyle Magazine and editor of twenty-one anthologies including Mondo Barbie. His collection of short stories, Blue Suburban Skies, is out from Main Street Rag Press. Read “Maraschino Cherries,” an excerpt from his collection, Speed Enforced by Aircraft (The Broadkill River Press, 2012).