tENTATIVELY, cONVENIENCE's Reviews > d.a.levy and the Mimeograph Revolution

d.a.levy and the Mimeograph Revolution by D.A. Levy
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Jan 24, 12

bookshelves: art, poetry, politics
Read in January, 2012

review of
the Larry Smith & Ingrid Swanberg edited
d.a.levy & the mimeograph revolution
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - January 24, 2012

The 1st time I remember hearing about d.a.levy was when my girlfriend of the time, Rebecca Barten, & I assembled H.O.M.E. Encyclopedia - 1992 - Volume 1: A - N, a 2 hr VHS vaudeo compilation of movies made by Baltimore folks. Konstantin Petrochuk contributed a 2:00 piece called "About d.a. Levy's Death" (an excerpt from a film from 1982).

THEN, 19 yrs later, I was in the Innisfree Poetry Bookstore in Boulder & I was delighted to find this bk - partially b/c it comes w/ a DVD of Petrochuk's feature about levy - finally I'd get a chance to check out the whole thing! SO, my 1st priority upon getting this was to witness Kon's movie - wch I liked & found educational.. BUT, I found some of the formal framing devices to be a bit tediously overused. No matter.

I stretched out actually reading the bk over 8 mnths or so while I was otherwise distracted by other bks & activities but I'm glad I finally read the whole thing. THIS IS LOVINGLY PUT TOGETHER BY PEOPLE WHO OBVIOUSLY CARE DEEPLY ABOUT THE SUBJECT & I was almost completely convinced of levy's 'importance'.

In fact, even if the reader were to decide that they don't like levy's work at all (wch I think is unlikely) if they have any interest in Concrete Poetry at all, they'll most likely find the takes on it here to be fascinating.

Karl Young's essay says "The majority of the Americans who ran under the banner of "concrete" poetry, even before the Emmett Williams anthology had reduced the genre to the brittle minimalism that the overwhelming majority of readers would overwhelmingly reject as underwhelmingly trivial, were not looking toward Lettrism for inspiration." Them's fightin' words, right?! Who this "overwhelming majority of readers" is & how Young collected these dubious statistics about their "overwhelming[..] reject[ion of Williams' bk] as underwhelmingly trivial" seems likely to be restricted to a few people of Young's acquaintance who're in no way representative of those of us who love concrete poetry.

Essentially, Young & others present levy as possibly the primary representative of "dirty concrete" - as far as I can tell a term meaning concrete poetry (or whatever) in wch occlusion is used as a technique of, as levy purportedly called it, "destructive writing". In levy's case it seems that his persecution by the highly oppressive Cleveland police FORCE led somewhat to his creating work in wch what cd be taken for self-censorship (ie: the occlusion of semantic content) becomes an attack on censorship by being a formal heightening of the conflict (ie: occlusion used as a semantic content of its own). While I don't find the "dirty concrete" work of levy's that compelling as it's presented here, I do find the term valuable & I'm glad to add it to my critical vocabulary.

As for the Williams edited Anthology of Concrete Poetry insulted in Young's quote? It is, according to the text on its front cover, "the largest Anthology of Concrete Poetry to appear to date [1967], and the first major one to be published in the United States." It was published by Dick Higgins' great Something Else Press & I feel compelled to defend it as a very important bk indeed. Maybe Young is angered by levy's non-presence in it. Dunno. I, too, have been left out of many a publication that I shd've been in - but that doesn't make them unworthwhile otherwise.

I wd even have to strongly disagree that Williams' anthology represents only "brittle minimalism". Certainly Carlfriedrich Claus' "Allegorical Essay: for Werner Schmidt" (1965), John Furnival's "The Fall of the Tower of Babel" (1964), Heinz Gappmayr's 1964 poem in wch the typing-over technique is used, & Bengt Emil Johnson's "Homage to John Cage" (1964) are all strong examples of non-minimalist & potentially occluding techniques!

Furthermore, Bob Cobbing & bp Nichol are both included & they were both associates of levy's - &, perhaps, this is part of the problem. levy is revealed as the 1st publisher of Nichol. I wd have to agree that that is important in itself. So why is levy not included? There're many possible explanations: Williams didn't know about him, Williams didn't like his work, Williams censored him out as too dirty-concrete, levy wasn't 'art-school' enuf, he was too 'working-class'. I certainly don't know the answer. I do 'know' that Cobbing was from London, & Nichol was from Toronto - both cities are 'respectable places' - ie: if you're living in either of these cities you might well be considered to be 'urbane' - but if you're living in Cleveland you might be considered a 'hick'.

Both Cobbing & Nichol might be considered "dirty concrete" at times but none of their work in the Williams anthology wd be. Nichols' "eyes" (1967), eg, strikes me as very 'safely' art school design-ish. Wch is not to say that I dislike Nichols' work. Far from it. I even had the good fortune of meeting him around 1979 or the early '80s & I found him extremely likable. He, too, like levy, died entirely too young (although not nearly as young as levy did - nor for the same reason).

Anyone familiar w/ Cobbing's bill jubobe (The Coach House Press, 1976) or his collaboration w/ P.Clive Fencott Cobbing & Fencott in Baltimore might associate some of his work w/ overtyping & smearing w/ levy's own use of overtyping & overinking, etc.. As such, yes, they're both "dirty concrete". But the work of Nichol that I have in my personal library (Journal & The Captain Poetry Poems Complete) I wd only associate w/ levy's b/c of such things as spelling "thought" as "thot" - a phonetic abbreviation not confined to the 2 of them. Nonetheless, I'm willing to accept that Nichol was "dirty concrete" at times too.

What seems even more apropos to me is that levy cd be sd to be an important precursor of DIY in punk. As is obviously typical of someone young & just beginning to work on their craft, there can often be an acceptance of mistakes & even a pushing of what might ordinarily be considered 'undesirable' aspects of production to highlight them for an alternative esthetic. I think of my own recordings of the Baltimore phone network's 1979 "TESTES-3" messages - they were deliberately over-recorded to create more noise. I'd say that levy embraced visual noise as a part of his production esthetic.

The color prints at the center of d.a.levy & the mimeograph revolution are a particular treat. I didn't even immediately recognize some of them as having been made from condoms. The use of condoms as print-making materials is the kind of thing bound to offend 'polite society' (often very impolite indeed when it's dropping napalm) & such things as these prints & levy's use of collaged porn, curse words, & political protest was heavily suppressed by the police state he was so unfortunate to live in. As levy says in Andrew Curry's June 1967 interview w/ him: "I hallucinate a lot and I pretend a lot. That's the only way I can survive in an atmosphere similar to that of Nazi germany before World War II, which is what Cleveland is and what the United States is." Indeed. But I have to wonder: did the cops suppress the actual makers & distributors of the porn that levy collaged from? It seems unlikely, eh? After all, they were probably mafia - & the mafia knows how & when to pay the cops off.

As for the "mimeograph revolution"? Well, I'm all in agreement that the 'underground' took advantage of the mimeograph in the 1960s to produce revolutionary work that strongly challenged the propaganda of the mainstream media. But, as for when that began? The Futurians, a science fiction readers/writers group, are reputed to've used mimeo as early as 1939 - & they were mostly politically radical too - so the "mimeograph revolution" hardly started w/ levy & his friends. However, that doesn't in any way invalidate what they did. Even I, as a latecomer, was using the mimeo for similar purposes in 1985.

Here's this from Wikipedia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mimeograph ):

"Thomas Edison received US patent 180,857 for "Autographic Printing" on August 8, 1876. The patent covered the electric pen, used for making the stencil, and the flatbed duplicating press. In 1880 Edison obtained a further patent, US 224,665: "Method of Preparing Autographic Stencils for Printing", which covered the making of stencils using a file plate, a grooved metal plate on which the stencil was placed which perforated the stencil when written on with a blunt metal stylus.

"The word "mimeograph" was first used by Albert Blake Dick when he licensed Edison's patents in 1887."

It's quite possible that the mimeo revolution started as soon as the mimeo became available to revolutionaries - in the late 19th century!

One thing that I learned from reading d.a.levy & the mimeograph revolution was that I had actually run across his work before Kon Petrochuk turned me on to him. His hackencross shaped poem entitled "VISUALIZED PRAYER FOR THE AMERICAN GOD # 6" adorns the back cover of Tuli Kupferberg's 1967 Grove Press bk entitled 1001 Ways to Live Without Working & I have that bk.

Wch brings me to: was levy a working-class poet? How does one define the working class? The most obvious definition might be: someone who works. A less obvious definition might be: someone who doesn't have the money to buy their way into a higher class. levy's family, I'd say definitely a working class one, didn't have the money to send him to college - hence by the latter definition he might've been working class.

As for the former definition: that can be tricky: WHAT CONSTITUTES WORK? Does a guy work who goes into the business that his dad owns & sits around all day browsing the internet while getting pd for fucking off? Did d.a.levy work by writing a prodigious amt of poetry, making a prodigious amt of artwork, & publishing a prodigious amt of bks & underground newspapers? Some wd say YES, some wd say he probably worked harder than the mass media moguls he was counterbalancing - & I'd have to agree. But I'd additionally have to say that as a person who's also produced a prodigious amt of work that's of so little interest to people that I can barely give it away that there's working for yrself & there's working for other people - like it or not, it's this latter work that's generally considered to be WORK & not the former.

In the interview w/ Curry, this exchange takes place:

levy: I think I am a poet without kissing ass, whatever a poet might be.
dust: Well, for the benefit of people who might be partial to ass-kissers, to be an artist is...
levy: To be an artist you don't have to suffer.
dust: What do you have to do?
levy: You've got to have money. Lots of money and lots of love. And a Siamese cat.
dust: That makes sense.
levy: And lots of books by Alan Watts.

Now I think that levy's humor comes thru here - but what also comes thru is the speech of a somewhat naive young person. After all, levy was 24 during this interview. levy had alot to offer the world but very few people w/ money wanted to support it. Why wd they? levy was writing from the perspective of the un-monied, he wasn't propagandizing for the rich. He wasn't "kissing ass" & ass-kissing is a very successful commodity. If levy's work wasn't a successful commodity then he probably shd've learned to support himself otherwise & still kept doing what was important to him at the same time. I'm a working class guy & I've done it. levy cd've done it too. If he thought it was miserable to be so poor, he shd've tried being a hard-wood floor finisher for 10 yrs, like I was - then he wd've really found out was misery was - but wd he have continued writing his poetry?!

levy was struggling to survive, levy & his colleagues were disgustingly persecuted by the cops & their sociopathic D.A.. levy committed suicide. & THAT is what I think was his biggest mistake! Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen was written by a nazi death camp survivor who then committed suicide. How can I blame him for that?! But levy? He was a fool to've committed suicide. He was only 26. I agree that the work he produced during his brief life is remarkable - but it barely got past juvenilia. & it shd've gotten far past it. levy shd've persevered & produced even greater work. He's far from the only person to've ever suffered & I suspect his suffering was even minor in comparison to the lives of many I've known - including my own.

levy is not only NOT in Williams' anthology - he's also NOT in the Mary Ellen Solt edited Concrete Poetry: A World View & he's NOT in the 1973 Ronald Gross & George Quasha edited Open Poetry or in the Milton Klonsky edited 1975 Speaking Pictures or in the Richard Kostelanetz edited 1973 Breakthrough Fictioneers or in the Kostelanetz edited 1980 Text-Sound Texts or in the Alan Riddell edited 1975 Typewriter Art or in the mIEKAL aND edited 2009 Anthology Spidertangle (understandable given that this latter consists of all works from members of the SPIDERTANGLE email list). But levy is in the excellent Jean-Francois Bory 1968 Once Again & that's nothing to pooh-pooh! The point is that while levy might've survived longer if he'd gotten more support & less harassment, he was hardly completely neglected in his day!

THE MORAL OF THIS REVIEW?: If you're out there in some shit-hole city trying to improve the culture by making it more creative & honest & you feel like committing suicide: DON'T KILL YRSELF! If you persevere, you may very well 'win' to a more significant degree than may seem possible in yr depressed moments. THERE IS HOPE & YOU MAY VERY WELL BE THAT HOPE.
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