The Poetry Project

A Brief History of The Poetry Project Newsletter

By Nick Sturm

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):

Favorite workshop description: Alice Notley writes, “I expect my workshop will be similar to past Alice Notley workshops….I assume I’ve learned a little more since the last time I taught, and that I’ve a little more to learn in the teaching. If not, boo hoo.” (No. 108, October 1984)

Favorite advertisements: for wallpaper designed by Gordon Matta-Clark, which “The artist will install in your home or office: estimates furnished on request” (No. 2, January 1973) and for making great Italian meals with Katie Schneeman, featuring a drawing by George Schneeman. (No. 95, January 1983)

Favorite Jim Brodey quote: In a review of books by Bob Kaufman and Brodey, Jordan Davis writes that “[Gary] Lenhart recalled being visited by Brodey while reading Clark Coolidge’s just-published Own Face. ‘That’s a great book,’ Brodey said, ‘like W.H. Auden fell on his head.’” (No. 163, December 1996/January 1997)

Favorite report of theft: “Recently, crazed teenage thieves tiptoed away with our shiny black IBM typewriter and even our tiny Westclock, leaving the Mimeo Poetry Kingdom of N.Y. embarrassingly bare. Roughly translated, this means we need money.” (No. 11, January 1974)

Favorite letter to the editor: It’s a tie between Aram Saroyan’s “A Letter to the New York School” in No. 15, May 1974 paired with its response in the subsequent issue, “An Open Letter to the Howdy Doody School of Poetry From the New York School” (No. 16, June 1974)—and Kevin Killian’s letter to the editor for misidentifying actress Paula Prentiss. (No. 159, December 1995/January 1996)

Favorite animal reference: “Jim Carroll, the 21-year-old Perfect Master, has a little puppy named ‘Joe,’ his very first dog. Jim was last seen riding a bike down Bolinas’ Elm Road.” (No. 17, July 1974)

Favorite statement about John Ashbery: “John Ashbery just got a job at Brooklyn College, but is taking a year’s leave of absence. That’s moxie.” (No. 8, October 1973)

Favorite statement about The Poetry Project: From Eileen Myles’s piece celebrating the Project’s 20th anniversary—“A ‘poetry project’ should exist in every town and city in this country, like libraries, or public gardens.” (No. 118, January 1986)

Favorite no-bullshit Barbara Barg line: “If I live to be thirty-two, I’ll never understand why the term ‘political poetry’ drives so many white poets to a frenzied hallucination of censorship.” (No. 56, June 1978)

Favorite archival statement: Another tie—this time between Bob Holman’s article “Taping the Blackburn Tapes” (No. 85, November 1981) and Tim Dlugos’s editorial statement, opening his first issue as editor, about “climb[ing] the shaky ladder to the loft above the Poetry Project office, where ten file cabinets containing eighteen years’ worth of history are crammed into a shallow crawlspace. From a drawer, I extricated issue 1 of this publication…” (No. 108, October 1984)

Favorite disagreement over printing technology: Eileen Myles’s “Mimeo Opus” article (No. 89, March 1982) vs. Bernadette Mayer’s “Mimeo Argument” response (No. 90, April 1982)

Favorite editorial choice: Including an “Internet Correspondent” section in the new “Regional Updates” feature starting in issue No. 162, October/November 1996.

Favorite issue overall: No. 83, May 1981—A fantastic long issue featuring Peggy DeCoursey’s note on Steve Carey’s long-running workshop; Bernadette Mayer’s review of James Mellow’s biography of Hawthorne; a typographically wild poem-review of Hannah Weiner by Barbara Barg; three uncollected Alice Notley poems (“I want love & / pornography in May.”); and a review by Notley—signed “Clive Notley”—of 4 plays by Edwin Denby directed by Bob Holman. Kudos to Greg Masters for this one.

Favorite long-time contributor overall: Charles North.

#263 — Winter 2021