|June 1, 2000|
Vol. 20, No. 22
By Tom Nattell
This American Life
A counterculture icon who befriended Ginsberg, rocked with the Fugs and played politics with the Yippies, Woodstock poet Ed Sanders embarks on his latest project--tracing the United States' tumultuous history in verse
"History is kind of a wiggling mosaic, it is a time-track you can pack according to your vision," says poet Ed Sanders, a smile breaking out beneath a neatly trimmed gray moustache, excited eyes and a shock of minimally tamed curly hair. A pair of reading glasses hangs down from his neck. He looks like a laid-back Mark Twain. Looks can be deceiving.
Back in the '60s, Sanders became well-known for his colorful counterculture activities. He once led a band of Vietnam War protestors in an attempt to levitate the Pentagon into the air (no movement was detected). He cofounded the Youth International Party (also known as the Yippies), was arrested and charged with obscenity for publishing Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts, and cofounded New York City folk-rock band the Fugs. Sanders has been around. And after 60 years on the planet, he’s taking time to assemble some interesting wiggling mosaics of his own.
Surrounded by a small wall of cardboard storage boxes filled with history books, Sanders clicks away at his keyboard. He is converting "chrono-tracks" into poetry.
"This is meditative history writing," Sanders explains with an accent reflecting his Kansas City, Mo., roots. "I'm not out there like the Leakeys digging up fossils in Olduvai Gorge. I'm working from books and also digging through my own memory banks. . . . I'm at a computer terminal filtering all this stuff."
Sanders is assembling his history of 20th-century America, selecting events, translating them into free verse and adding small illustrations here and there. Sheets of verse, which show the marks of editing, fill thick, recycled loose-leaf binders. More pages and revisions are added each day.
Sanders' vision is unfolding through three volumes of America: A History in Verse. He plans to produce a total of seven volumes in this mega-poem, which will stretch back in time to the 15th century; the 385-page first volume of the planned septet was released this spring by Black Sparrow Press. Sanders also just published The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg (Overlook Press), a 280-page history-in-verse memorial for the late, great American poet, who was both a close friend of and an artistic influence on Sanders. He gets up early each morning to continue his work of filtering, assembling and translating history into verse. He takes his job seriously, but with a healthy sense of humor.
"Poetry used to be the equivalent of the 6 o'clock news," he says, referring to the days when poets were bearers of news from distant lands. "It was a mnemonic way of storing information. It began before writing." While he talks, his hands seem to move to his words, tracing statements in the air.
To Sanders, poetry is more than an art form: It is a means of investigating, organizing and storing data about the world around us. This sense of purpose led to an approach that Sanders has dubbed investigative poetry.
"Investigative poetry harkens back to ancient times by saying that poets write history," he says. "Poets take a part of the responsibility for describing the time-track of civilization." In 1976, Sanders published a manifesto called Investigative Poetry, in which he argued that "poetry, to go forward . . . has to begin a voyage into the description of historical reality."
"Years went by, and I hadn't really taken my own advice," Sanders says now. "So I decided I better start exploring. First I did Chekhov , then 1968: A History in Verse , and then I've done this thing on Allen Ginsberg's life chronology." All used his investigative-poetry method. America: A History in Verse is the latest and most ambitious exploration of this approach. From Vol. 1:
& now my time arrives
to grasp my sunflower walking stick
to speak my nation.
Sanders takes his sunflower walking stick through the dense vegetation of American history. Starting in 1900, he unfurls lines of poetry to describe his vision of important events, with interesting minutae scattered across the landscape. "As a poet, I don't accept the sequencing of any history book. I look at it and say, ‘Well, what would it sound like sequenced this way or that way?’" He is the instrument through which his particular view of history is transformed into verse.
Vol. 1 of America goes through 1939 (the year of Sanders' birth), and is available in bookstores. Vol. 2 (1940-1965) is being edited and finalized. Vol. 3 (1966-2000) is still banging around in Sanders' head. After the 20th century is complete, he plans to write four more volumes to cover "chrono-tracks" stretching back to the 1400s. Again from Vol. 1:
How many of our cherished freedoms
To march & speak in the streets
Are owed to the Wobbly men and women
Vol. 1 of America is a rich mix of labor history, international politics, the women's suffrage movement, revolutionary artists and technological innovations. The book includes a succession of short verse ventures, exploring such subjects as the Battle of San Juan Hill, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Margaret Sanger, Rosa Luxemburg, Sacco and Vanzetti, Mother Jones, Will Rogers, the Spanish Civil War and the free-speech struggles of the Wobblies. The book is organized chronologically, with each year represented by a poem that concludes with a string of notable births and deaths.
Sanders is known for his lexicon of not-in-the-dictionary words created through verbal reduction, abbreviation and hyphenation, then seasoned with bits of humorous hipsterness and satire. This word-tinkering is found throughout America: "performance poetry" becomes "perf-po"; "capitalist eyes" becomes "cap-eyes." At least 20 other etymological mutations can be found amid the verse flowing through Vol. 1.
Some of these word experiments spawn illustrated offspring. For example, cap-eyes are represented by a small drawing of two sets of eyes surrounded by curved arrows indicating a rolling motion. Rolling cap-eyes appear in the text whenever historic challenges to the capitalist status quo occur. Talking about events covered in Vol. 2, Sanders notes that McCarthyism, the Cold War and U.S. government actions to overthrow governments south of the border made "cap-eyes go berserk in the ’50s--the decade of cap-eyes."
In Vol. 2, which is scheduled for release this fall, another important visual presence materializes--a stylized grim-reaper character whom Sanders named Scythe Man. This dark personage appears in the white space of pages and becomes a form of visual commentary. "Scythe Man appears in 1954, when they toppled the elected president of Guatemala strictly to protect the United Fruit Company," notes Sanders.
Sanders' personal history is an interesting "wiggling mosaic" in its own right.
Among other things, Ed Sanders is a Fug. He has been one since the ’60s (excepting a 15-year sabbatical). Fug is a euphemism for "fuck" that was coined by Norman Mailer in his novel The Naked and the Dead. In 1964, Sanders joined forces with poet-anarchist Tuli Kupferberg and formed the Fugs.
The band quickly became notorious in the ’60s New York counterculture scene because of their music, humor, leftist politics, censorship-challenging lyrics and constant rebellious theatrics. Their first album, released in 1965, was originally titled The Village Fugs: Ballads of Contemporary Protest, Points of View and General Dissatisfaction. Some of their hot songs included "Slum Goddess," "River of Shit" and a musical version of Ginsberg's "Howl." The band broke up in 1969, but were resurrected in 1984 in reaction to the right-wing threat of the Reagan years. They have performed a small number of shows each year since, and Sanders is having a Web site constructed (www.TheFugs.com) to make the band’s material more easily available. The site should be online sometime this summer.
Back in the ’60s, Sanders also kept things stirred up and cooking on the literary scene. He opened the Peace Eye Bookstore in a converted kosher meat market in New York's Lower East Side. (A cyberspace version of the bookstore will be included in the Fugs site.) The Peace Eye became a creative vortex of resistance, as well as the publishing home for Fuck You. The magazine was mimeoed under Sanders' editorial ethos of "I'll print anything."
Fuck You did not fare well among the literary reviewers inside the New York City Police Department. The NYPD raided the Peace Eye Bookstore in 1966 and arrested Sanders, charging him with obscenity. He successfully defended himself against the charges, with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union. (The cops never returned the Fuck Yous they seized.) All this legal commotion led to Sanders' face being printed on the cover of the Feb. 17, 1967, issue of Life magazine, in which he was proclaimed "a leader of New York's Other Culture."
Sanders later joined Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in forming the Youth International Party, which in 1968 became the first American political party to nominate a pig for president.
And we have
they ban the bomb,
mouth of death
convulsing upon the earth . . .
Sanders' poetry career got its first big inspirational jolt in 1961, when he was arrested for swimming after the Ethan Allen, a Poseidon submarine armed with 16 nuclear missiles. He was snagged by the authorities before getting near the leviathan. While doing time for this protest, Sanders wrote "Poem From Jail," which is cited above, on toilet paper and the insides of cigarette packs. He smuggled out a copy in his shoe when he was released. According to Sanders, the poem is "a study of the Persephone myth and the fear of nuclear Armageddon." The poem was published by San Francisco Beat publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books.
In reading through Sanders’ poetry, one finds recurring references to ancient cultures. He studied Greek, Latin and the classics during an extended undergraduate stay at New York University. "Greek and Latin prepared me to not be afraid of epics," Sanders notes. His longstanding interest in early Greek poetry led him to record the 1989 CD Songs in Ancient Greek. It includes his performance of texts from Sappho, Heraclitus, Homer and Plato, and features such titles as "High Tech Heraclitus" and "Archilochus Rock and Roll Wailout." Studying the classics also led him to cross paths with his future wife and co-conspirator, Miriam. They met in a Greek class at NYU in 1958 and got hitched in 1961.
The development of Sanders’ writing has had a number of influences in addition to Greek and Latin literature. "I got exposed to [the writings of] I.F. Stone, which I found in a gutter near NYU," he says. He also lists poets Charles Olson, Ezra Pound ("in spite of his politics") and Allen Ginsberg as important to the development of his art. "I was influenced by Allen Ginsberg, in the sense that I learned from being his friend that he brought into poetry his personal experiences as well as the experiences of his friends," Sanders explains. "Ginsberg's ‘Howl’ was an investigative poem in that it used fragments of biographic information about his friends."
Reading "Howl" in the late ’50s was one of the factors that prompted Sanders to pack his bags in Missouri and head for New York City, and it was Fuck You that brought Sanders into contact with Ginsberg. Sanders sent a copy of the magazine to the poet in 1962, at which time Ginsberg was in India. "I heard he was depressed, and I sent him a copy of Fuck You," Sanders recalls. "He told me later it brought him out of his depression, in a way." This initial correspondence led to a lifelong friendship. Sanders was among those whom Ginsberg called from his deathbed to say a last good-bye, and The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg is his personal tribute to the poet.
Sanders recently added a movie role to his list of cultural activities. The Source, a well-received documentary film about the Beats that was released in 1999, included Sanders among its commentators on the history of the Beat scene. (Sanders was interviewed for the film while teaching poetry at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo.) But a much bigger film project may be in Sanders' near future.
Originally published in 1971 as The Family: The Story of Charles Manson's Dune Buggy Attack Battalion, Sanders' best-selling book about the notorious band of murderers was republished in 1990 as The Family: The Manson Group and Aftermath. Don Murphy (coproducer of Natural Born Killers) recently called Sanders and said he was interested in producing a film based on the book. "Daniel McKenna, who wrote American History X, is working on the script," Sanders says. "He's finished a couple of drafts." Sanders characterizes the project as "noodling along," then adds with a grin: "If it happens, it's pay time."
In addition to his poetry, Sanders actively explores the world around him through the biweekly newspaper that he publishes, The Woodstock Journal. The publication is something of a family affair: Sanders is both editor and reporter; his wife, Miriam, is the paper's official nature essayist; and his daughter Deirdre, an attorney living in Massachusetts, is a correspondent. Other regular contributors include Alexander Cockburn, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Andre Codrescu. According to Sanders, it takes "a very intensive three days to put it out."
Sanders started The Woodstock Journal in 1995; like the reunion of the Fugs, it was another defensive act against the rising power of the country's right wing. "I started it because of Gingrich, because of the 1994 election," he notes. "It's a team of Miriam and me and a few others who put it out. We have a little office in an old barn in a beautiful part of Woodstock, by Beaver Lake." The paper mixes local news with editorial discussions of state, national and international concerns. It also includes (of course) a section for poetry, in which Sanders is currently running poems from Vol. 2 of America: A History in Verse.
Sanders lives in an unassuming little gray house surrounded by a few acres of mixed forest in Woodstock. (He bought the place back in 1977 with profits from the Manson book.) A stream flows behind the house, and a small bridge leads to a sugar shack in which maple syrup is brewed. Jacques, a white duck who survived psychology experiments at the University at Albany, sits on the lawn in a makeshift cage that protects him from predators. Deer converge on the house from both sides, expecting handouts of ground corn. A two-car garage functions as an archive, in which stacks of stuffed and labeled banker’s boxes contain evidence of his remarkable past. Sanders claims to have 500 boxes of material stashed away, not including his large collection of Fugs recordings. Among the artifacts are electronic instruments that he designed and built, including his Talking Tie (a wired neckpiece played while worn), and Pulse Lyre (a pair of wired work gloves played by touching the fingers together).
Despite the passing of time and his turning 60, Sanders is still ready for short-notice political action. The threat of possible aerial spraying for mosquitoes in Woodstock is a current concern that has put him on standby mode. If it happens in Woodstock, Sanders predicts, "There will be civil disobedience and a big opposition to spraying." He also remains vigilant against the continuing threat of the right wing in this country. He keeps an old mimeograph machine and a manual typewriter around so that even if the power goes, he’ll retain the capability to "go out with a blaze of leaflets."
In the meantime, Sanders continues to click along on his keyboard amid boxes of books, filtering information and sequencing American history with verse.
Seething Nation! Vast & Flowing!
Day & Night & Dawn!Ed Sanders