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Interview with Ed Sanders.


Ed Sanders's multifaceted artistic career began when he read Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" as a high school student in Kansas City, Missouri. Inspired by Ginsberg's poetry and his powerful dissenting voice, Sanders hitch-hiked to New York a few years later in 1958 to enroll at New York University and became enmeshed in the Lower East Side poetry and arts scene--a distinctive avant-garde of the early 1960s peopled by second-generation Beat, New York School, and Black Mountain poets who read in coffee houses, painters who founded cooperative galleries, performance artists who created Off-Off Broadway, and underground film makers. Some noted artists who were part of the community are Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas, Sam Shepard, Julian Beck and Judith Malina, Diane di Prima, Joyce Johnson, Rochelle Owens, and Ted Berrigan The Lower East Side became a generational epicenter of artistic ferment, and Ed Sanders was a central figure whose work exemplified the art style of the period, later classified by critics as early postmodernism.

Sanders's art was inseparable from his politics and was a form of both protest and changing consciousness. His first published poem, Poem from Jail (1963), was written in jail after Sanders's arrest in a protest against nuclear submarines. From 1962 to 1965, Sanders was also an influential promoter and disseminator of avant-garde poetry through his self-published poetry magazine, Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts, part of what Sanders called the mimeograph revolution. The magazine also served as a manifesto for free speech issues, sexual liberation, and legalization of marijuana. In 1964, Sanders opened the Peace Eye Bookstore, which sold small press poetry publications and provided a base for Sanders's diverse activities--the press, poetry, art shows, rehearsal space for his rock band, the Fugs (see fig. 1), work on his experimental films, and political organizing. Sanders was a participant in the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference, which was a seminal event for younger Beat and New York School poets.

The culmination of Sanders's border-crossing and communal art during the 1960s was his folk-rock band, the Fugs, co-founded with bohemian poet Tuli Kupferberg. Writing their own songs, the Fugs combined music with poetry, political protest, social satire, sex comedy, and an anarchic style that usually ended performances with a Dionysian kind of happening, such as the time when huge mounds of spaghetti (with sauce) were thrown at the audience. From 1965 to 1969, the band had a cult following in New York and beyond. In 1968, Sanders, with anti-war activists and Yippie movement founders, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, organized a "Festival of Life" to take place in Chicago during the Democratic National Party Convention as a countercultural demonstration against the war in Vietnam. The Chicago police force violently opposed the gathering, and several organizers (David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Thomas Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, Lee Weiner, and John Froines, who came to be known as the "Chicago 8") were put on trial for conspiracy to cause civil disruption. Sanders was not charged but was called to testify for the defense in 1969.

Sanders's style in poetry, prose, and music employed the breakdown of hierarchies typical of arts of the period and was very much a part of the 1960s avant-garde program of democratization and accessibility. His work playfully combined elements from popular culture (such as cartoons, rock and roll), avant-garde art (such as open poetic forms and mixed media), and the poetic tradition of the lyric going back to the ancient Greeks, producing an idiosyncratic collage of high and low culture, an inter-art mix of verbal and visual elements, accessible language, and his own characteristic humor made up of comic hyperbole, satire, slang, and neologisms. The sexual body as the site of cultural struggle was prominent in Sanders's work of the 1960s, as displayed in some of his early poems ("Sheep Fuck Poem," "This is the Prayer Wheel and Vision"), the title of his poetry magazine (Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts), and the sexual comedy of the Fugs. At the same time, ancient Greek literature informed his writing and music: during the time that Sanders was active in the Lower East Side avant-garde, he was also studying the classics at New York University, completing a degree in Greek in 1964. Sanders met his wife, Miriam Kittell at NYU; they were married in 1961, and their daughter was born in 1964 (see fig. 2).

As the 1960s closed, Sanders's life and work took a turn when he went to California in 1970 to report for the Los Angeles Free Press on the Manson Family murders, resulting in a highly respected book on the subject: The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion (1971;1990). A few years later in 1974, he and his family settled in Woodstock, New York, where he continued to work as a poet, short story writer, political activist on environmental issues, a journalist, and a musician. He published several books of poetry in the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century: Selected Poems 1961-1985 (1988). With the publication of his manifesto, Investigative Poetry (1976), and its counterpart in verse, The Z-D Generation (1980), Sanders defined a new poetics that led to historical and narrative poetry. Never abandoning the lyrical poetry of his earlier career, he began writing book-length biographical and historical poems, suchas Chekhov, A Biography in Verse (1995); 1968, A History in Verse(1997); The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg (2000); and ultimately his longest work, America: A History in Verse (five volumes on the twentieth century published 2000-2009, with four more volumes to follow on earlier centuries). Sanders also developed a long-term prose fiction project: Tales of Beatnik Glory, a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories that memorialized the 1960s New York counterculture (published in four volumes from 1975 to 2004). This work was followed by his autobiography covering the same period, Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side (2011). In 1984, the Fugs began to perform annual reunion concerts, and Sanders continued to invent microtonal musical instruments (such as the Pulse Lyre, Talking Tie, and others) that accompanied his poetry readings, a project that began in 1968. In the 1990s, Sanders and his wife, Miriam, published the Woodstock Journal, a newspaper partially focused on environmental issues, later transformed into a website. Sanders remained linked to his Beat Generation origins through teaching in the summers at Naropa University, where he has taught courses on investigative poetry. Sanders conceives of investigative poetry as devoted to history and politics--the poet as chronicler of historical reality--supported by scholarly research and data gathering, and presented in modern poetic forms that include new technologies and performance. Sanders cites Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, and Allen Ginsberg as models.

Ed Sanders has received many honors and awards, including NEA fellowships for poetry, a Guggenheim fellowship for poetry, a Foundation for Contemporary Performing Arts fellowship, and the American Book Award for Thirsting for Peace in a Raging Century. His most recent poetry collection is Let's Not Keep Fighting the Trojan War: New and Selected Poems 1986-2009.

The interview published here took place on May 14, 1983, in my home, then located in Schenectady, New York. Sanders had received the Guggenheim fellowship and was temporarily living in the Albany area. I was primarily focused on studying Sanders as a poet and his connections with Burroughs and Ginsberg, since I was then researching Burroughs for my critical introduction to William S. Burroughs, 1985. Publications by Sanders referred to in this interview include Poem From Jail (City Lights, 1963); Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts (1962-65); Egyptian Hieroglyphs (Institute for Further Studies, 1973); Tales of Beatnik Glory volume I (Stonehill, 1975); Investigative Poetry (City Lights, 1976); The Z-D Generation (Station Hill, 1980); "Holy Was Demeter Walking the Corn Furrow" (first published in 20,000 A.D., North Atlantic, 1976); and "Sappho on East Seventh," a long narrative poem which was published several years after this interview in Thirsting for Peace (1987), and then included in Tales of Beatnik Glory, volume II (Citadel, 1990).

The interview summarizes many of Sanders's activities in the 1960s and his later commitment to investigative poetry. Since there were no other interviews with Sanders published in the 1980s, this conversation is informative about his then-perspective on his activities 20 years before (a man in his forties remembering his twenties) and his published poetry to date. It wasn't until the publication of Fug You in 2011 that he provided full details on his life in the 1960s. Also, it wasn't until the publication of Thirsting for Peace in 1987 that he began receiving attention for the body of his poetry. In this interview, he assesses his achievement as a poet. He also talks about continued work on Tales of Beatnik Glory, referring to volume II, which would not be published until 1990, and which would evolve into four volumes published in 2004. In volume II, as Sanders describes, he developed long narrative poems--"short story poems" of which "Sappho on East Seventh" is one--which provided an important transition to his later, historical and biographical book-length poems. Sanders speaks as he writes: informal, slangy humorous language combined with impressive erudition on the modern and ancient Greek poetic traditions.

Jennie Skerl: I was just reading through Tales of Beatnik Glory. (1) I don't think anyone could live in New York City like that anymore. It's too expensive.

Ed Sanders: Frankly, the civilization was brought about by two factors: one factor in the Lower East Side, or even the beatnik (2) ability to live in New York City was that the Lower East Side had been a slum for about 2000 years plus, and so it had a karma, a tradition, of being cheap. Also the rent controls of World War II were still in place in 1958, '59, '60, '61--all the way up to the end of the '60s. So there were really cheap apartments, and, at the same time, cheap food. That was all that was necessary.

JS: What about your friendship with Ginsberg?

ES: Yeah, well, I met all these people through Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts.

JS: You didn't know them before?

ES: No. Well, I came to New York City as a trembling little guy who had read "Howl." And I had read a lot of Ezra Pound, and Dylan Thomas, and E. E. Cummings.

JS: So it is true what George Butterick said in his essay about you [in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 16]--you read "Howl" on campus in Kansas and decided to go to New York City?

ES: You had a double choice, eitheryou went to California or New York City. I got accepted by NYU, and Berkeley's acceptance came late, so I went to New York. Yeah, I read "Howl." I bought "Howl" at the [Missouri] university bookstore. I had it totally memorized, driving around, screaming it out there in the prairie. So, when I came to New York, I was very young. I thought I'd do a few years of research and studying language. I studied Latin, Greek, Egyptian.

JS: Oh, you actually studied Egyptian?

ES: Yeah, the state of my Egyptian has sort of dropped off in the last twenty years--but at one point I was able to read a sarcophagus. I was fairly adept. But Greek and Latin were my biggest subjects. Anyway, I wouldn't have approached these people in a million years back then. I used to go to all the Beat poetry readings, when I was 19 or so. I saw Kerouac and all those people. I saw Frank O'Hara and Ginsberg at the Living Theatre, say in '58. But it was all, you know, I'd see Ginsberg one year and see him the next year at another poetry reading, and he still had the same shirt on or something like that. I'd get some cultural inputs, but I wasn't prepared to approach any of these people for years. I didn't want to go the Rimbaud route. So, I just sat around there. Then when '62 hit, and I started putting out Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts, I thought I was ready. I'd written a poem while I was in jail (I had tried to board a Polaris submarine on a peace demonstration: I swam out and tried to get on the submarine, and was arrested.) (3) 1 thought I had written a poem in jail that was as good as most of the poems that had been written by the Beat generation. Ferlinghetti printed it, Poem From Jail.

JS: So you had been writing and writing, and this was the first thing you had written that you thought was really good.

ES: Oh yeah, I had written lots of juvenilia--a thick stack of rewrites of Samuel Beckett, and rewrites of this and that, some good, some bad, crawling through the void puking and being young. So, in February, we got drunk one night after a Jonas Mekus movie, and I said I'm going to start a magazine called Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts, and everybody was saying, "Sure, Ed, sure, yeah." So then I went the next day and bought a $30 mimeo and went down to the Catholic Worker where I used to eat (it was cheap) and went up on the second floor and typed it out on stencils, and they graciously gave me some of their paper, and I printed it. And then I thought of a great title, Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts, a state of the art title. Everybody thought I could go to jail. In '62, it was handcuff city. But I had been in jail for sit-ins, down south in civil rights demonstrations. I was getting arrested all over. No big deal. So I decided that I believed in what I was doing. I believed in my poetry at that time, Poem from Jail, because Ferlinghetti was going to print it. I thought, "Ferlinghetti is going to print my book! Hot stuff--this is it--big time--Ferlinghetti's Pocket Poets--City Lights!" It was a big thing because they printed William Carlos Williams, Corso, Ginsy--all my heroes. I was a 21-year-old ectomorph from the Midwest. It was like heaven. Like now getting a Guggenheim. If anybody had said to me in '58 I would ever get a Guggenheim, I would have laughed. So anyway at that time, to me, getting published by City Lights was the equivalent of a Guggenheim. [Sanders received a Guggenheim for poetry in 1983.] So I had a lot of confidence from being published by City Lights. I knew I had a good title: FuckYou/A Magazine of the Arts.

JS: Definitely, everybody loves that title.

ES: Here I was, trembling and shy and afraid. I'd go to these open poetry readings, and they'd say, "Let's put that skinny punk from the Midwest on at two in the morning." So everybody'd be reading, you know, "the green saliva of time," and I'd go on and read my poems. And then I put out Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts, and they'd say, "Oh, when do you want to read, Ed? Just pick your time." So I learned corruption immediately. So everybody's groveling, wanting to get in: "Oh, here's some poems, Ed." They wanted to get in Fuck You because it became hot--all these people gave me articles to put in.

JS: How did you get all those really famous people to be contributors?

ES: I believed in what I did. I had a couple of semi-religious revelations, you know, from studying Egyptian and stuff. It was all happening right at the same time. So, I went into the Eighth Street Book Shop and I got some addresses. I made this list of people I would send Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts: I sent it to Fidel Castro, Pablo Picasso, Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac. Of course, I would give it out, too. I had this endless list of people I respected, and I'd send it out to people just for the heck of it. Always first-class, because I was afraid of getting arrested, because it took a radical stance for its time. For instance, I wrote the first editorial advocating die legalization of marijuana, and everybody was saying, "Oh Ed (this was in late '62, early sixties), you can't. It's gotta be handcuff city."

JS: That was pretty early for that stuff.

ES: I was very honest. I was trying to live an openlife. So, if my friend wrote poems for Fuck You Magazine and was also a drug dealer, I'd put it in the contributor's notes. So, anyway, I sent it to Ginsberg (I got his address in India), and he was apparently in a big depression, so he wrote back. Charles Olson wrote back, Philip Whalen wrote back, Gary Snyder, they all started writing letters back. And I was just a trembling, little.... So I said to myself, "you made your moves--you better get to know these people. Learn the language, get accepted as another beatnik schmo, just like a member of the club." So basically that's how it happened... that's how I met all those people. I did my apprenticeship, and I decided I was ready.

JS: But you were, I gather, really good friends with Ginsberg. He was involved with the Fugs.

ES: Yeah, well Ginsy and I got real close because I lived on the Lower East Side.

JS: So did he.

ES: Yeah. He always travelled a lot, but our apartments were pretty near, so I'd hang out. He's the one I got to know best of all of them because he was on the set. Allen's the one with whom I had the greatest rapport because he got me out of the Midwest. I still think he's a great poet. Some of his poems are American treasures. And poetry was always my greatest interest, too.

JS: What do you think is his greatest significance as a poet?

ES: He's got a really good ear. He's brilliant. He's one of the most intelligent people I know, and able to cope with insanity. He's a guy who has on occasion had full Blakean visions. Usually when you meet a writer or somebody and you know them for 20 or 30 years, you develop a kind of a standoff, sort of begrudging friendship--but I feel very close to him still.

JS: When did you first meet William Burroughs?

ES: I remember a party at Grove Press in '65....I have various memories.... I remember seeing him around the campus [NYU] a lot.... He was more of an influence to me, frankly, in the books. A piece that was a big influence was in a little magazine called The Outsider, (4) and also the books like Exterminator and Nova Express. Mainly, you got out of the early Burroughs things like you got from Sartre, from existentialism--"Existence precedes essence" and "Hell is other people"--apothegms. Burroughs was always interesting to me as a writer who was a distiller of apothegms--brilliant shards or fragments. We would all memorize stuff like that, or talk about Dr. Benway when Naked Lunch started coming out. So you picked up things then in segments when it came out in magazines. I couldn't afford to buy the book. Grove Press put it out for $5. In 1964, that was my weekly food bill.

JS: Did you know Burroughs's son?

ES: Yes.

JS: As I was reading Tales of Beatnik Glory, I kept comparing it to Speed [an autobiographical novel] by William Burroughs, Jr., because he portrayed the Lower East Side of the same era, around 1961, and there are a lot of parallels between your book and the amphetamine scene he described.

ES: Yeah I had a lot of information about amphetamines. I made a documentary called Amphetamine Head.

JS: Yes, it's mentioned in Tales of Beatnik Glory.

ES: So I actually did it. The police took it. But I did do this film.

JS: They took the film?

ES: Yeah they raided me. I had this little back building--one of those Lower East Side back buildings in the dark back courtyards, and they raided one night in 1965 in the summer and wiped out my film career. Some of it was pretty smutty. I did this film called Mongolian Cluster Fuck. I used to get all my friends, we'd drink, and I'd have them come over, and film. In Amphetamine Head I think I had some footage of Corso, and some of Joel Oppenheimer. Yeah so, I rented this apartment on Allen Street, on the Lower East Side, a famous street in Lower East Side history. I bought a few ounces of amphetamines, and I strung lights all around, and I put this bag of amphetamines in the middle of the room, and put out the word. The only rule was that, whatever happened, I would be able to film it. It pretty much happened exactly as I wrote it in Tales of Beatnik Glory. There were a couple of sordid things that I didn't write about, but mainly it's all there. People drew murals all over the wall, and they took off the front door and put up a curtain. That's what the landlord really freaked about--what did they do with the front door? They probably used it as a staging area for art. They ripped the plumbing out to make plumbing flutes.... These were hardcore A-heads. These guys were the ones that said, "Hell man, wow, I was up three weeks, wow, thirteen visions," you know. These guys that had stayed up for a couple of weeks had sleep-death a terrible sleep-death.... They would put India ink into hypodermic needles and squirt these arabesques. One or two of them were actually interesting artists. Most of the rest were just dopers--just burn-outs.

JS: Were they really young kids?

ES: There were old ones and young ones. Of course, with an A-head, you can'ttell. If you go on amphetamines for a few weeks, you go kind of grey, and trembling, and skinny, and you don't know how old they are. They look like something casting called for cryptic movies [i.e., "from the crypt" horror movies]...

JS: What do you think is your most important work?

ES: I think it's a group of poems that will last... I guess I would say I'm a poet. I wrote a 23-page poem about the ghost of Sappho. ["Sappho on East Seventh" was published in volume II of Tales of Beatnik Glory in 1990.] I spent six months writing it last year. I would say there is a group of poems, beginning with Poem From Jail, and including a group of poems I wrote based on my studies of Egyptology, a series called Egyptian Hieroglyphs. I think those will last. And there are various other poems in my sex mania period that I think will probably last, at least they will always be of interest to collectors of erotica. So, I think, in an aggregate, I've written an important group of maybe 100-150 pages of poetry that I'm very interested in having survive. I think I'm a pretty good short-story writer, too. Tales of Beatnik Glory was my first short stor[y] [collection], and since then I've written a whole bunch. In fact, I'm just now finishing volume two of Tales of Beatnik Glory, where I mix narrative poetry with prose--poetry that's really narrative--I call them "sho-sto-poes"--short story poems that mix prose with the poetry sections. There's no slack, no vague imagery, it's very direct, I'm kind of proud of those. I studied a lot of Yiddish-speaking socialists in the Lower East Side and compared those people that lived in the same buildings in 1895 with those of us who lived there in 1963, '64, '65, [which is] 60 years later, switching back and forth, comparing two years. So I think those will last. It's interesting, I've never had anybody ask that question before. I guess that's the answer. There's about 150 pages of poetry and some short stories. It's like the Dadaists in 1916, sitting in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich and spewing out some manifesto in five minutes, and that's what survives. And the rest of his life or her life they might have done 59 volumes of work, but, this is it, the manifesto. So, I don't know, maybe something I scratched on a tablecloth at Le Metro Cafe in 1964 in the middle of a poetry reading will be anthologized. It's like Robert Graves says, all he wants is two poems in The Oxford Book of English Verse...

JS: I like that poem about Demeter ["Holy Was Demeter Walking the Corn Furrow"]. Is that one you would save?

ES: That's one of the sex maniac ones. I wrote the first version in '67, when Joel Oppenheimer and I were reading at the Folklore Center, and I had to have something hot for that. So I just wrote it off one morning. Then I kind of rewrote it after I met Robert Bly. Yeah that's not bad. That's a very metrical poem. I got interested in Greek meters.

JS: Well, that was a question that I wanted to ask you, about your concept of poetic form. Ginsberg always talks about breath as the basis for his line, I wondered if you were working within that concept. But you also seem to have a lot of visual elements in your poems, too, which is an entirely different thing.

ES: Well, it's a question of left brain and right brain. I think it's important to develop your right brain, and I think visual and spatial perception in poetry is a right brain phenomenon. It developed in the twentieth century by using the typewriter as a typesetting process, with guys like Pound, William Carlos Williams in his tercets, Paul Blackburn, Gary Snyder, Phil Whalen. Allen's not too much into that.

JS: So you think it's all related to the typewriter. For some reason I never thought of that before.

ES: Well, and calligraphy. Those guys--Whalen, Lew Welch, and Snyder--all studied calligraphy at Reed College. So, that's why when you get a letter from Gary Snyder, it's a work of art. Ditto for Phil Whalen. Whalen's a master of the calligraphic poem. Apollinaire was. Some of those other French guys experimented with the way a poem looks. And Robert Duncan, for example. To him it's all a very serious matter. When Olson said poem is field, the way it looks is part of the field. So I have never hesitated to used glyphs; it comes out of my study of Egyptian.

JS: Are those drawings in your poems actually Egyptian? Or are they your own?

ES: It depends on what poems.... I'm going full color now. I've decided to go full color type. I think that typeface is going to go full color now, and therefore, since colors seem to relate to emotions, why not program the reading public to become sensitive to the mode and nuances of color typography? So that will come into poetry. Like color serifs. Serifs on a type font are a little hook, eye hooks that hook into a text. It's proven that that's an easier way to read, these hooks, so why not have color serif hooks?

JS: Are you using color symbolism?

ES: You can relate colors primitively, like red with blood, blue with water, but it's more sophisticated than that because you perceive more than 1500 color nuances, so you can relate them to emotions. Anyway, to me, it just goes to ability of your right brain in poetry, for your right brain to feed on as well as your linguistic half.

JS: So, you're really putting the two things together--the visual and linguistic?

ES: That's why I want full color... to go the Blake route...

JS: Related to that, I wanted to ask you if you participated in the printing of your books, because the visual part is so important.

ES: Oh, sure, my attitude about publishers is torture them until they respect you, especially if you have a visual sense. I have a very well-defined right brain. So I know to the micro-inch where I'd like to see these things go. And you have to get a little older and bolder to feel pushy enough to deal with the publishers. The best thing to do is to establish a cordial relationship and then force your will as much as possible on them, especially in spatial matters.

JS: I noticed you've been working with Open Studio. (5)

ES: They did the little manifesto of mine about the secret police, The Z-D Generation. It's great to work with them.

JS: So what is your concept of investigative poetry, which seems to be The Z-D Generation? It seems to me that's a whole new idea in your work.

ES: Basically, as a Newspeak precis, it's to keep poetry from becoming like Japanese flower arranging--not to trash Japanese flower arranging--but most people would rather be tortured than go to a poetry reading. I mean, if you go out there in the streets, people would maybe let you punch them in the face in lieu of going to a poetry reading, you know. At the same time, it's poetry's fault--it's a lot of gibberish. A lot of people are writing stuff that's just off the top of their heads--gibberish--without trying to take a step toward making it understandable. And it's really the fault of these brilliant guys like Apollinaire and Mallarme. Or, to go way back in time, the Greek dithyrambs--like Pindar--dithyrambs were just gibberish poems. But they were sung, you know, they had a chorus, so you can listen to the gibberish. It's like you don't really understand Wagner--most people don't--when it's sung, but it's beautiful and you don't mind. Same way in the dithyramb and just have somebody stand there--it's nod city.... But that doesn't say much about investigative poetry. It's just a method, it's practical. JS: You're saying it's a part of wanting to reach a larger audience, though. ES: Well, another factor besides the gibberish factor is that poetry used to be the six o'clock news, it used to tell the frustrations and hopes and desires and myths and inner meanings and secrets of the civilization. That's the Iliad and the Odyssey. They used to recite poems at the Olympics. If you trashed the emperor, it was a big deal. Catullus trashed Caesar, and they wondered if he was going to get killed for it. Poetry had an intimacy with the civilization. Probably only because of numbers, I suppose, because poetry and rhythm and singing and recitations were the most apt way mnemonically to store the information. That was the tape recorder of ancient times--metrics. But when 2000 years go by, poetry is what? It's lost its relationship to civilization. So how would you, in a non-hokey, non-sellout, non-commercial, but in a socially and historically relevant way, bring poetry back to the position it had in ancient times? I thought one way would be by having poets write history and conduct investigations, using all the techniques from the last 200 years of French, German, and American poetry to write real time stuff--to do investigations to tell stories, to thrill a reader again, or the listener.

JS: In The Z-D Generation you're talking about investigating political issues. ES: Yeah, another principle about investigative poetry is you don't have to drink the hemlock anymore. You throw the hemlock back in their faces. You say, 'You drink the hemlock." It's like the Ginsberg line, "Now is the time for prophecy without death as a consequence," (6) which is another principle of investigative poetry: that you can prophesy in a democracy. American democracy does remind me of Athens. Inside Athens is a great zone of freedom, while Athens would send out its triremes to kill: "Let's kill everybody in Lesbos because they didn't give us enough oil." So they would row off--to off the people of Lesbos. But within the walls of Athens there was a great freedom. If you wanted, you could be a drag queen, anything, whatever you wanted to do. As Aristophanes, you could write lysistrata in the middle of the war. It reminds me of America. So, "it's time for prophecy without death" is valid. So, why not have a Z-D generation--after Zola and Diderot--where you do the equivalent of the encyclopedia--which changed France for the better?

JS: Were you really interested in war criminals? [The Z-D Generation proposes to expose war criminals in the U.S. government.]

ES: Yeah, I thought, what would shake America to the core just like the encyclopedia did? In my judgment, the way you do it is to go up to the war caste, which I devoted a lot of time to. There's this group of people hooked into the machinations of power that come right out of World War II and Korea and Vietnam and are down there in El Salvador right now. I want to investigate the bombing practices of Curtis LeMay and the building of the bomb, and go right back to find the scientist who invented the fragmentation bomb, and locate the people that were responsible for napalm, and just put them on the pickle fork of reality--write about them--poetry. So I thought that would be one project that would be equivalent [to the encyclopedia] because it would shake American civilization to the roots if you did it accurately.


(1) At the time of the interview, only volume I of Tales of Beatnik Glory had been published (in 1975). A 30-year short-story project, volumes I and II were published together in 1990; volumes I-IV were published in 2004.

(2) "Beatnik" was a pejorative designation used by journalists (specifically the San Francisco columnist Herb Caen and derived from Sputnik, the Soviet satellite) to refer to Beat Generation writers and bohemians of the late 1950s and became part of popular culture. Many to whom it was applied rejected the label, but some, like Sanders, gladly adopted it to assert their nonconformity.

(3) The Committee for Nonviolent Action (CNVA), an anti-war, anti-nuclear weapons group organized a protest against nuclear-armed submarines in New London, Connecticut, in 1960. Sanders and others were jailed when they swam out to the Polaris submarines to prevent launching.

(4) The Outsider was a literary magazine published in the early 1960s by Loujon Press in New Orleans. The magazine published Beat writers, Charles Bukowski, and Henry Miller among others.

(5) Open Studio was a design, production, and training facility for writers, artists, and independent publishers in Rhinebeck, New York. The Studio assisted Sanders in designing and printing The Z-D Generation, which includes Sanders's drawings and a variety of typefaces.

(6) Allen Ginsberg's translation of a line from Apollinaire's "Les collines" ("The Hills"), which appears in the Ginsberg poem "Death to Van Gogh's Ear."
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Author:Skerl, Jennie
Publication:Journal of Beat Studies
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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