The Poetry Project Newsletter was founded in December 1972 as an effort by Ron Padgett to expand on the one-page reading announcement flyers that were sent weekly to The Poetry Project’s mailing list. The goal of adopting the newsletter format, as Padgett describes, was to address a change in the “social fabric” around St. Mark’s, which by the early ‘70s had experienced its first generational shift. The community of poets who helped found The Poetry Project were increasingly dispersed and integrated with new, younger groups of artists that were helping to expand programming at the Church. The establishment of a newsletter at the Project also matched larger trends in alternative media, as the Newsletter filled a gap in access to literary news created by the decline of the underground press. The first readings ever held at the Project were publicized in The East Village Other, which in the mid-to-late 1960s, along with John Wilcock’s Other Scenes (see Shelley Lustig’s regular literary gossip column “Under Shelley’s Poet Tree”), served as kindred spirit publications to the early Project. With the alternative newspapers dropping away and new aesthetic communities forming in relation to the Church for the first time, the Newsletter emerged as the Project’s paper of record.
The first issue of the Newsletter is the shortest ever published, composed of just two mimeographed sheets, though it’s packed with literary and artistic news. Alongside announcements about books by Lewis Warsh, Edwin Denby, and “Katie Mitchell,” the pseudonymous author of Two Suspicious Girls, “the remarkably wonderful pornographic novel” by Katie Schneeman and Tessie Mitchell, we also get information about underground comix, an upcoming George Schneeman show, and the new coat of white paint applied to the workshop room in the Church. The first piece of New York literary gossip appears in a note about Bill Zavatsky’s newly formed Sun Press: “Zavatsky, whose apartment is directly across the airshaft from Lionel Trilling’s, claims that Trilling dresses up in bizarre costumes and watches ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ on television every afternoon. Professor Trilling’s latest book is Sincerity and Authenticity.” The echo of O’Hara’s charmingly flippant line from his “Personal Poem”—“we don’t like Lionel Trilling”—would have immediately resonated with the community around St. Mark’s. TV makes another appearance in the first issue. As Padgett reports, “On the nationally televised Dick Cavett Show recently, Rod McKuen, asked to name his favorite poets, replied, ‘W.H. Auden and Anne Waldman.’” The Poetry Project Newsletter is the only place to go for exactly this sort of news.
The publication of the Newsletter has been uninterrupted ever since, appearing monthly throughout the Project’s regular season up to 1986, and then mostly bimonthly after that, with an editorial transfer every one to two years. Based on my count, Greg Masters holds the status of longest-serving Newsletter editor, publishing 24 issues from September 1980 to May 1983. The shape, size, format, and look of the Newsletter have varied over the years, first switching from the standard mimeo stapled sheets to offset printing in issue 92 under Masters’s editorship. An experiment with a more professional-looking newspaper-style format while Jessica Hagedorn was editor garnered mixed reviews from readership. “With regard to this year’s Poetry Project Newsletter,” writes Alice Notley in a letter to the editor in issue 125 (Feb/March 1987), “Aside from its extraordinary counterrevolutionary blandness, it does not relate to this poetry project at all, though it seems to be relating to some poetry project, perhaps the Uptown Y? Can we please have our own newsletter back?” It reverted to a more streamlined, traditional newsletter layout under Tony Towle in 1987 and has continued to appear in new forms—print and digital—up to today.
While poems, reviews, and interviews are standard genres in most newsletters from recent memory, these were not always part of the publication. The first poem in the Newsletter, “Poem” by Larry Fagin, appeared on the back cover of issue 8 (October 1973), edited by Bill MacKay, a convention that continued for most of the next 100 issues. Book reviews initially appeared under Ted Greenwald’s editorship starting with issue 28 (October 1975) and the first interviews—with Phillip Lopate and Susan Howe—were published by Vicki Hudspith in issue 68 (October 1979). Editorial slip-ups have always been a natural occurrence—mistyped lines in poems, names cut off from the end of reviews, minor attribution errors—though there are surprisingly few for an independent literary organization newsletter that has been managed by 35 different editors and published continuously for nearly 50 years. Those editors’ labor has been grueling and often unacknowledged: “I frequently had to do mailing (there were 500-600 on the mailing list) by hand,” said MacKay about editing the Newsletter from 1973-75. “It’d take me a weekend to do the addressing. Completely destroyed my private life. I loved it. It was great.” One funny thing though—while the issue you’re currently reading is labeled as number 263, it is at least the 265th edition of the Newsletter. Issues labeled 127 and 145 both appeared twice.
While The Poetry Project Newsletter has hung around a long time, it was not the first or only literary newsletter. There was the iconic The Floating Bear newsletter edited by Diane di Prima and LeRoi Jones from 1961 to 1969, as well as little-known publications like Poetry Newsletter, an unaffiliated pre-Poetry Project mimeographed newsletter, founded in December 1964, that featured poems, reviews, and event schedules when the readings at Le Metro Café—which later transferred to St. Mark’s—were still the main literary event in the East Village. There were peer publications like the Bay Area’s Poetry Flash, founded the same year as the Newsletter, both of which regularly reported on one another. There were also institutional spin-offs like The Report, a six-issue newsletter that appeared from 1979 to 1982. Published by The Citizen’s Committee to Save St. Mark’s, The Report documents the fundraising and reconstruction efforts—in beautifully illustrated architectural detail—following the fire that partially destroyed St. Mark’s in July 1978. And, of course, there were the inevitable newsletter parodies, like Caveman, “the Magazine of humor and REVENGE” edited by Simon Schuchat and friends out of the Project, and Life of Crime, “the Newsletter of the Black Bart Poetry Society” edited by Pat Nolan and Steve Lavoie on the West Coast. All of these publications are humming with vivid and unexpected details—entire social, aesthetic, and institutional histories that are mostly untapped—and they’re also just really fun to read.
As an archival scholar and Virgo, the scale of material in these publications is something I have to linger on. The sheer amount of historic and bibliographic information embedded in these primary sources, especially The Poetry Project Newsletter and Poetry Flash, is astounding. The Newsletter’s complete run alone amounts to thousands of pages documenting the readings, performances, book and magazine publications, calls for work, political developments and upheavals, programmatic experiments, financial strains, aesthetic devotions and arguments, births and deaths, social contractions and expansions, reckonings, whims, disasters, and visions of one of the most innovative literary (counter)institutions of the 20th century. The Newsletter is essentially the Project’s own living encyclopedia of itself, a colossal gradually accumulating collaborative documentary effort that is the textual equivalent of its immense audio archive. While The World makes some appearances in recent scholarship, the more ephemeral and less outwardly “literary” Newsletter is almost entirely absent from literary histories. Only the recent What Is Poetry? (Just Kidding I Know You Know): Interviews from the Poetry Project Newsletter (1983-2009), edited by Anselm Berrigan and published by Wave Books in 2017, begins to contextualize the enormous amount of important work that was published in the Newsletter—and often only in the Newsletter. When the history of The Poetry Project is written—hopefully a project that will soon be underway, especially with the complete processing of the Project’s archive at The Library of Congress—the Newsletter will be the central source, evidence not only of the Project as a historic experiment in alternative literary community but of the poems and people whose work and devotion make the Project possible.
I’ll end this abbreviated history with a list of some of my favorite excerpts from the issues of the Newsletter I’ve read so far (No. 1 to No. 197):