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Life of Crime: Black Bart Rides Again, Assholes PDF E-mail
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Being A History of the Inception of the Black Bart Poetry Society and Publication of Its Scurrilous Newsletter, Life Of Crime (edited by Steven Lavoie and Pat Nolan)

“Crime doesn’t pay, poetry doesn’t pay, and therefore, poetry is a crime.”

    
BActive Image lack Bart Rides Again
In the early eighties (of the 20th Century), on the idyllic Russian River, boredom was taking its toll.  There was a feeling of ennui, of being out of the literary loop in this quaint little backwater (even though the Bohemian Grove is just over the hill).  Andrei Codrescu had left for the rough and tumble, no-holds-barred trench warfare of the urban literary scene, Jeffrey Miller had lost his run-in with an ancient (non-literary) redwood giant, and Hunce Voelcker was busy constructing his monument to Hart Crane out of cement.  The Dada spirit was much in mind at the time as I was engaged in reading and translating some of my favorite French poets from the early part of the 20th century.  An offhand remark by a local resident led me to research a man who claimed to be a poet in these parts, but in the latter half of the 19th century (almost a hundred years previous, to be exact).  His name was Charles E. Bowles (Boles), aka Black Bart, the Po-8.  He’d robbed a stage just down the road in Duncan’s Mills.  My imagination did the rest.  What started out as a lark cum hoax soon blossomed (the alluvial plain around here is quite fertile) into a gigantic (albeit imaginary) enterprise that would include tee-shirts (black, of course), buttons (“the only good poet is a dead poet”), Bumper stickers (“The Black Bart Poetry Society, for those who think poetry is a crime”), ball caps, a reading series, a heuristic Black Bart Poetry University, and so on.  One might reassemble that old saw to say “it only takes an idiot to think a village”.  The newsletter came later.  And none of the foregoing and potentially money making ideas ever got off the ground.
 
“I’m Through With My Life Of Crime”
Steve Lavoie was a young poet and an old friend visiting me in Vacation Wonderland one summer in the early eighties when I explained to him my Black Bart scheme.  I outlined some of what I knew of Black Bart because it was local history and it made a good story.  Black Bart had robbed a number of stages throughout Northern California and always left a poem in the empty strong box.  It was always the same poem that began “I’ve labored long and hard for bread” and ended “you fine haired sons of bitches”. It was a lovely trenchant little doggerel that resonated with us since we knew a few people of the “fine-haired” variety.  I explained that Black Bart had eventually been captured and was one of the first to be incarcerated in the newly constructed state-of-the-art prison, San Quentin.  Upon his release, the more than likely apocryphal story goes, the warden asked Charles E. Bowles if he was going to rob any more stages to which the highwayman answered, “No, warden, I’m done with my life of crime”.  The warden then asked him if he was going to write any more poems to which Black Bart replied, “Warden, I told you, I’m through with my life of crime”.   Steve insisted that any society, poetry or not, had to have a newsletter.  I agreed, but what to call it.  Steve had to point out that it was as obvious as the hairs on my nose, “Life Of Crime, of course”.  Of course.  And thus, the legend was born, kemo sabe.

The Art Of Mimeograph
I was introduced to mimeograph in the late sixties by David Sandberg and his poetry magazine Or (oar).  Up until then I believed, as did most people, that books were printed by printers and were either hard bound or, if paperbacks, perfect bound.  Certainly staples were not supposed to be visible.  By the early seventies I had my own mimeo poetry magazine, The End (and variations thereof), and had started my own poetry press, Doris Green Editions.  I published my friends, as that’s the way those things worked.  And I connected with others who did the same thing, as that’s the way those things worked.  Some of the people I connected with and published had been gathered under the rubric of The New York Poets 1 .

Operating a mimeograph machines, for those not familiar with that arcane technology, can be quite messy. The ink is oil-based, stencils are made of a sheer, usually blue, waxed mulberry paper upon which the text is typed, preferably with an electric typewriter because it has enough force to cut the stencil; a manual typewriter will suffice if the keys can be struck hard enough (not recommended for touch typists).  A poorly cut stencil will produce an illegible page.  An over-inked drum (over which the stencil is stretched) will produce an illegible page.  An under-inked stencil will produce an illegible page.  A combination of all of these things and an inattentive operator will produce an illegible page.  With practice and patience, a legible page can be produced, and by then the beer is all gone and it’s time to run to the store for another pack of cigarettes.  But it can be done, and numerous issues of magazines and poetry books were published in this manner.  So when Steve suggested a newsletter, the means, cheap and quick, were at hand.

Guerilla Tactics and Editorial Policy
In the giddy aftermath of Steve’s brilliant idea and imbued with the Dada spirit, we set about to turn the literary world on its head.  Archimedes once said (not to me), give me a lever, a fulcrum and a place to stand, and I will move the world.  Coyote-ish with glee, our stand was “if you’re for it, we’re agin it”, our fulcrum was our fearless foolishness and naiveté, and our lever(s), an ashtray full of used wooden matches.  Who would be the first to feel the sting of our scathing diatribes?  The literary establishment?  Boring.  And besides, too easy of a target.  But we needed practice, to sharpen our aim, and so we picked on our friends.   They could take a joke (or so we assumed).  We sent out an open invitation to those who might want to join the fun.  To our surprise, we got takers.  An air of jovial camaraderie prevailed and everyone got a kick out of saying things they didn’t mean like they meant it (if you know what I mean).  We sniped at friend and foe alike.  We were always on the lookout for targets.  Someone would shout “a whale! a whale!” and we were ready with our lampoons.  There were those who thought, because they knew us, that they would be safe from our barbs.  Wrong.  Everyone was a fair target including ourselves.  In fact, at that point self-parody was probably our most practiced skill. You can’t be serious was the unofficial (nothing was ever official) editorial guideline of the newsletter. We would not be serious nor did we want to be taken seriously.  Not being serious is harder than you might think, and being taken seriously is chillingly simple, particularly by the simple minded.    

Things Get Ugly
We were both admonished and cheered by our friends.  Some said that were going too far, that we were being irresponsible, that we were much more intelligent than that (as if intelligence had anything to do with it), and that we were coming off as incredibly bitter.  But did we listen?  If we had, I could stop here.  The cheering was louder. Crazed invectives were arriving by the mail bag reeking of an intoxicating blend of rattlesnake venom and wild mushroom (really wild mushroom).  Once you see the humor in everything, you get to laugh.  But too soon the silliness took on a life of its own.  Axes were brought to grind.  The simpering rivalries skulking around in the collective literary unconscious can be stirred to life by the simplest, most ineffectual of breezes.  Grudges were brought to bear.  People wanted blood.   They were ready for a throw down (metaphorically speaking, of course).   We were confident that our take-no-prisoners style of editing would be able to turn serious dirt, no matter how vindictive, into silly putty2 .  After all, we were psychic surgeons par excellence, and if need be, we were ready to replace bile with a funny bone.  Unfortunately, the transplants didn’t always take as we found out too late--what we were trying to fix was too complex, too deep.

Hidden Agendoodoo
In the late 70’s and early 80’s there was a serious epidemic in the Bay Area literary community.  Quite a few writers became serious.  There was suspicion (later confirmed) that it was spread by college boys3 .  Dour frats.  They had the gospel, the final word, and if you weren’t in you were out.  Career academicians.  For that, you had to be serious.  And with their proselytizing and holier-than-thou attitude, they made people unhappy. They rubbed folks the wrong way--self-righteousness has a way of doing that.  It was only a matter of time before there was a reaction, in print4 .  The excess energy created by the so-called Language Wars naturally found its way to our pages (as it would a low spot).  Nonetheless, we continued to receive anonymous gossip that could not be made funny no matter how hard we tried, though it did qualify as dirt.  Not all of it came through the mail.  I recall a rendezvous in an East Bay college town that will (and should) remain nameless complete with hand signs and secret handshakes and passwords before acquiring some “documents.”   The hidden agendas were coming to light and revealed was a load of nasty crap.  Dog shit is the stream you never want to step into again, to paraphrase an ancient Greek.   But, inevitably, you do.    

Editorially Bored
Take two guys who are serious poets (but not contagious), whose heroes are Marcel Duchamps, Tristan Tzara and Groucho Marx, and early issues of the newsletter of The Black Bart Poetry Society are what you get.  If it were a stage act (and it almost was), it would be billed as Groucho Marks and Marko Grouch.  But who gets jokes about Apollinaire or Picabia?  Or Anselm Hollo, for that matter?  Life of Crime was an explosion of in-jokes available to those who really wanted to know5 .  There was a lot of name calling (later published in Life Of Crime) when claque met claque.  An almost continental air pervaded in these clashes, recreating, allusively, the café scene in Cocteau’s Orpheus.  And if it didn’t happen, well, it had to be invented.  To those who complained that we had spoken inaccurately of them we consoled with the words of Katherine Hepburn, “I don’t care what you say about me as long as it isn’t true”.  Our mantra was “who cares?” Or if we were feeling particularly frisky, “je regret rein!”  It is fortunate to find someone who can be on the same page, in the same tune, and engage in a true collaborative effort.  It takes trust and affinity which is usually friendship (or a really tight band).  Life of Crime had its moments, aided and abetted by camaraderie.

Not So Hidden Agendada
We had our own agendas; it would be disingenuous to say that we didn’t.  Fortunately we were STM6 challenged and easily distracted.  I can’t speak for my co-editor, but I can say that I had two specific old nags to flog and flay, and only in the later decadent, more or less solo issues of the newsletter.  One was a biased report on what I read as a biased report on Ted Berrigan’s residency at 80 Langton St. in 1981, and as a noted Romanian author noted, it was “a fine piece of hepatic journalism.”  The other was the deconstruction (in a pre-Post Modern sense) of a letter sent to that bastion of Bay Area poetry calendars at the height of the so-called Language Wars by a now respected college professor who was then the Han Solo of a group of bilious seminarians7 .  The letter detailed a proposed boycott of this poetry tabloid if they did not stop publishing what the author felt were unfair attacks on him and his band of gloomy men and women.  By the time this piece was published in the last issue of Life Of Crime, it was such old news that it qualified as an artifact.  Well, at this point, what I was dealing with were artifacts, arty facts and arty fakes so in a post-prescient way, it was fitting.

Scene of the Crime
In May of 1983, The Black Bart Poetry Society held a membership drive and benefit at the On Broadway in San Francisco.  The On Broadway was a big venue music hall upstairs from the punk rock night club, The Mubahay Gardens.   The event was videotaped by a local professional video crew using, for the time, state-of-the-art available light cameras. Images of the poets reading were also projected on a giant screen behind the performers.  The performers were Joanne Kyger, Bob Kaufman, Darrel Gray, Andrei Codrescu, and Alan Bernheimer.  In between the live acts the taped readings, courtesy of the San Francisco Poetry Center, of Ed Sanders, Alice Notley, Clark Coolidge, and Philip Whalen were projected onto the giant screen.  Also billed were surprise guests8 , accusations, confrontations, prepared statements and food.  The entire event was wrapped up with live music, including Alastair Johnston’s impromptu band Girl Scout Herring.  For a couple of guys who put out a funky mimeo rag of little consequence, the poetry event at the On Broadway was nothing short of spectacular.  It was the event of the decade, and I would challenge (if I really cared) anyone to find a similar event that was as inclusive.  The West Coast/ Pacific Rim writers were represented by Joanne Kyger, with Bob Kaufman representing the surrealists and, by association, the Beats, Darrell Gray, the Actualists, and Alan Berheimer, the Language School.  Andrei Codrescu, who had missed his flight and had to phone in his participation, was included primarily because he knew the editors.  The larger than life videos of Ed Sanders, Alice Notley, Clark Coolidge, and Philip Whalen represented the independent and maverick core of Modern American Poetry.
    
If That Was Then, When is Now?
At the risk of sounding too Al-Gore-ish, Life Of Crime was the spiritual progenitor of many a poetry blog now proliferating online.  These blogs are much more virulent than Life Of Crime ever was though often not as funny and certainly much more transparent. There are more poetry assholes now than ever before.  It is simply a matter of scale and technology.  The response to our critics and fans alike was hardly instantaneous.  Our machinery and it was machinery in every sense of the word, an old Gestetner, was on the verge of obsolescence when we inherited it.  Being poets we had an idea of what being on the verge of obsolescence meant. It was our tool, and we put it to good use.  Our raison d’etre was that reason is suspect9 . Our WMD was the chimerical cosmic Ha-Ha, and our IEDs were packed with spitballs and made rude noises.  While many an online poetry blog may exult in its virtual veritas, we can exult, in the tradition that placed a urinal on exhibit at the Armory Show, that we perpetuated a hoax.  If you took it seriously, the joke’s on you.
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1 The thing I always liked about the New York School was that everyone called everyone else by their first name even if you didn’t know them personally: Ted, Frank, Jimmy, Ron, Clark, Anne, Alice, Maureen, Bernadette--you get the picture; except, of course for Mr. Bill, but that’s another story. 
2 The editorial policy was very basic: no text submitted to us was sacrosanct.  As editors cum gods we had absolute power to cut and rewrite anything that came across our desks (metaphorically speaking).  One of our editorial innovations was to insert parenthetical asides within the text as a kind of in-house heckler.  The verbosity of poets writing prose is boggling in its sheer verbosity so often drastic pruning was required after which the piece bore little resemblance to what had been submitted.
3 “Why is it that seven out of ten years San Francisco is a boring poetry scene, and now it’s hotter than New York, and why is it that the most obnoxious people are the energizers of the whole scene?”  Ted Berrigan, 80 Langton St., June, 1981
4 That took place in a publication other than Life Of Crime, and in fact what appeared in the newsletter in regard to that controversy was in actuality more of a footnote to the actual event.
5 A stink bomb in the antechamber of academe where the college boys were lined up for the next job.
6 Short Term Memory
7 Yes, there was a Princess Leia, and an Obe Wan Kenobe (even though he was dead).  And a Luke Skywalker, who currently is an online surveyor.  And wookies (mostly from Michigan).  Unfortunately, in this scenario, they all go to the dark side, after one fashion or another.
8 At a midpoint of the event, who should clamber up the steps but a ragtag group of the North Beach literati led by one Neeli Cherkovsy and I realized then that we had made a horrible social blunder.  Here we were in the middle of their turf and we had not formally invited them.  Of course we immediately apologized, offered them life time membership in the Society, and fifty percent off the admission fee.  The society was always much more polite than the newsletter.
9 A perceived irrationality is the creative force of the universe.

NOTE FROM EXQUISITE CORPSE:  The collected “Life of Crime” has been reprinted by Poltroon Press (2010) in Berkeley, and is now available  from www.poltroonpress.com . Subtitled, “Documents in the Guerrilla War against Language Poetry,” the collection is prefaced by its original publishers, Pat Nolan and Steve Lavoie. The above essay is the “untamed” version of Pat Nolan’s preface. Exquisite Corpse came in for its share of knocks in “Life of Crime,” and we responded vigurously, just as the so-called “language poets” did in their own in-house publications. Despite the uneasy peace that seems to reign on the poetry scene these days, not “all poets are friends,” as a young ingenue exclaims in a lovely rant by Bill Zavatsky. There are poets who’d rather jump off the cliff than find themselves magneto’d to the same refrigerator as some other poets. And many have. Check the bottoms and the crags, they are littered with impaled poets. Whatever the ideological battles’ now quieted puddles (of blood), the stakes are high for poets. The “peace” reigning today is nothing but boredom, which is the reason why “Life of Crime” and “Exquisite Corpse” were founded in the first place.
 
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