The Mimeograph Revolution

A Secret Location of the Lower East Side:
Adventures in Writing 1960-1980
A Sourcebook of Information by Steve Clay and Rodney Phillips

[Purchase a copy of the book at Granary Books]

A Little History of the
Mimeograph Revolution (an online excerpt)

There was no more significant poetry anthology in the second half of the twentieth century than The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, edited by Donald M. Allen and published by Grove Press in 1960. Poised almost at mid-century, it provides a summing up of a very particular situation in poetry as it looks back to the achievements of the 1950s and ahead to the possibilities of the 60s. Allen’s anthology was a self-conscious counter to New Poets of England and America, edited by Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson and published by Meridian in 1957. It was to prove prophetic (the two anthologies have not one poet in common) and to serve as both a calling for and a permission to younger writers. The goal, according to Allen, was to present poetry that “has shown one common characteristic: a total rejection of all those qualities typical of academic verse. Following the practice and precepts of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, it has built on their achievements and gone on to evolve new conceptions of the poem. These poets have already created their own tradition, their own press, and their public. They are our avant-garde, the true continuers of the modern movement in American poetry.”(1)

Allen’s anthology was prophetic in another way. It assigned poets to large overall groupings that have persisted for nearly forty years and have entered the critical nomenclature: Black Mountain, San Francisco Renaissance, Beat Generation, and New York Poets — as well as identifying a group of younger poets “who have been associated with and in some cases influenced by the leading writers of the preceding groups” (p. xiii). Allen was circumspect to a fault concerning his classifications: “Occasionally arbitrary and for the most part more historical than actual, these groups can be justified finally only as a means to give the reader some sense of milieu . . .” (p. xiii).

When the Allen anthology came out, several of the featured poets had barely been published. Of necessity, they existed on the margins, outside mainstream publication and distribution channels. Of necessity, they invented their own communities and audiences (typically indistinguishable), with a small press or little magazine often serving as the nucleus of both.

Direct access to mimeograph machines, letterpress, and inexpensive offset made these publishing ventures possible, putting the means of production in the hands of the poet. In a very real sense, almost anyone could become a publisher. For the price of a few reams of paper and a handful of stencils, a poet could produce, by mimeograph, a magazine or booklet in a small edition over the course of several days. Collating, stapling, and mailing parties helped speed up production, but, more significantly, they helped galvanize a literary group. The existence of independent bookstores meant that it was actually possible to find these publications in all their raw homemade beauty. In several instances (for example, Wallace Berman’s Semina and LeRoi Jones and Diane di Prima’s The Floating Bear), the magazines were available only to a mailing list; they were produced for a community of kindred spirits as a literary newsletter — a quick way to get new work out. And they were the cutting edge of new explorations in and through language. As Ron Loewinsohn noted, “[M]ore important than the quality of their contents was the fact of these magazines’ abundance and speed. Having them, we could see what we were doing, as it came, hot off the griddle. We could get instant response to what we’d written last week, & we could respond instantly to what the guy across town or across the country had written last week.”(2)

At the other pole were magazines like Evergreen Review, which published equally subversive material — but with the financial backing and distribution of a large publishing house. Comparatively slick and “professional,” it helped to bring new writing and new think-ing to a much larger and geographically diverse audience.

These extremes of production quality and availability are comfortably subsumed under the concept of the “mimeo revolution,” the unprecedented outpouring of poetry books and magazines that took place roughly between 1960 and 1980; the writing and publishing with which this survey is concerned are those which emerged precisely at the point at which the “New American Poetry” met the mimeo revolution. The “mimeo revolution,” as a term, is a bit of a misnomer in the sense that well over half the materials produced under its banner were not strictly produced on the mimeograph machine; however, the formal means of production are not as important in identifying the works of this movement as is the nature of their content. Looking back at them now, the books and magazines of the mimeo revolution appear imbued with a vivid purity of intention which it is nearly impossible to conceive of creating in today’s publications.

Loomings: Waldport and Berkeley

  • 1940 – The Experimental Review, edited by Robert Duncan and Sanders Russell
  • 1940 – Kenneth Rexroth’s In What Hour published by Macmillan
  • 1943 – The Untide published at the Conscientious Objectors’ Camp, Waldport, Oregon
  • 1943 – William Everson’s X War Elegies published by the Untide Press
  • 1946 – Philip Lamantia‘s Erotic Poems published by Bern Porter (the poet is nineteen years old)
  • 1947 – The Ark, edited by Sanders Russell, Philip Lamantia, and Robert Stock
  • 1947 – Robert Duncan’s Heavenly City, Earthly City published by Bern Porter
  • 1948 – Berkeley Miscellany, edited by Robert Duncan

Although the earliest mimeographed literary item we have been able to identify is Yvor Winters’s Gyroscope (published for his classes at Stanford in 1929 and early 1930), we’ll start our story in 1943 in the conscientious objectors’ camp at Waldport, Oregon. There, William Everson published poems in an unofficial newsletter, The Untide, and helped run the mimeograph machine to produce his own X War Elegies, among other small volumes. The last book produced at the Untide Press in Waldport was Kenneth Patchen’s An Astonished Eye Looks Out Of the Air,which Everson printed via letterpress in 1945 as the war was ending. Everson was soon to move down to Berkeley and purchase a Washington hand press to continue his printing. His poems from this period, including those originally written in Waldport, were collected by James Laughlin and published by New Directions in 1948, as The Residual Years.

In 1947, the first issue of The Ark, strongly committed to literary and political writings influenced by anarchist and pacifist principles, appeared in San Francisco. Contributors included Kenneth Rexroth, Richard Eberhardt, Paul Goodman, and William Everson. Another contributor was Robert Duncan, whose essay “The Homosexual in Society,” published in Dwight MacDonald’s Politics in August 1944, had occasioned John Crowe Ransom to renege on publishing Duncan’s previously accepted “African Elegy” in The Kenyon Review. Despite his feeling that the article was courageous, Ransom felt the poem was a “homosexual advertisement.” On a sojourn to the East Coast, Duncan had co-edited with Sanders Russell The Experimental Review — a formal beginning to his long experience with small presses and little magazines. In California, he produced two issues of the Berkeley Miscellany (in 1948 and 1949), as well as his own Poems 1948-49 under the imprint of Berkeley Miscellany Editions. In the two issues of the magazine, Duncan published his own work as well as that of Mary Fabilli, Jack Spicer, and Gerald Ackerman.

Spicer, like Duncan and Robin Blaser, was then a student at the University of California at Berkeley. These three were the center of the “Berkeley Renaissance,” a group heavily influenced by the study of Medieval and Renaissance culture. The Duncan-Spicer-Blaser circle created “a spiritual and artistic brotherhood out of shared homosexual experience, occultism, and the reading of modern literature.”(3) The Berkeley group held regular meetings for discussions and readings influenced in part by Kenneth Rexroth’s evenings in San Francisco. Spicer went on to produce his own magazine, J, in 1959, and was influential on Stan Persky’s beginning Open Space in 1964. Both of these magazines were produced via mimeograph in San Francisco. In 1957, Spicer conducted the Poetry as Magic Workshop attended by, among others, John Wieners, then in the middle of producing his own little magazine, Measure. The Berkeley group consolidated important shared tendencies and were to exert a considerable force as they moved to San Francisco in the early 1950s.

The San Francisco Renaissance and California

  • 1951 – The Jargon Society founded by Jonathan Williams in San Francisco
  • 1953 – City Lights Bookstore opens in North Beach
  • 1955 – Six Gallery reading, the first public reading of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl
  • 1955 – Semina, edited by Wallace Berman
  • 1956 – Allen Ginsberg’s Howl published by City Lights
  • 1957 – Howl confiscated by customs; Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shigeyoshi Murao arrested
  • 1957 – Jack Spicer‘s Poetry as Magic Workshop, San Francisco Public Library
  • 1957 – Charles Olson reads and lectures in San Francisco
  • 1957 – First book from White Rabbit Press, Steve Jonas’s Love, the Poem, the Sea & Other Pieces Examined
  • 1958 – First book from Auerhahn Press, John Wieners’s The Hotel Wentley Poems
  • 1958 – Richard Brautigan‘s The Galilee Hitchhiker published by White Rabbit Press
  • 1958 – George Stanley’s The Love Root published by White Rabbit Press
  • 1959 – Philip Lamantia‘s Ekstasis published by Auerhahn Press
  • 1959 – Bob Kaufman’s The Abomunist Manifesto published by City Lights
  • 1959 – J, edited by Jack Spicer
  • 1959 – Cid Corman’s Origin Press publishes Gary Snyder’s first book, Riprap
  • 1960 – Gary Snyder’s Myths and Texts published by Corinth Books
  • 1960 – Lew Welch‘s Wobbly Rock published by Auerhahn Press
  • 1960 – William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s The Exterminator published by Auerhahn Press
  • 1963 – Vancouver Poetry Conference
  • 1964 – Open Space publishes Robin Blaser’s first book, The Moth Poem
  • 1965 – Berkeley Poetry Conference
  • 1965 – Joanne Kyger’s The Tapestry and the Web published by the Four Seasons Foundation
  • 1965 – Lew Welch‘s Hermit Poems published by the Four Seasons Foundation
  • 1965 – Jack Spicer‘s Language published by White Rabbit Press
  • 1965 – Jack Spicer dies
  • 1966 – Lenore Kandel’s The Love Book published by Stolen Paper Editions
  • 1966 – Philip Lamantia‘s Touch of the Marvelous published by Oyez Press
  • 1966 – John Martin’s Black Sparrow Press begins in Los Angeles
  • 1967 – The Pacific Nation, edited by Robin Blaser in Vancouver
  • 1968 – Janine Pommy-Vega’s Poems to Fernando published by City Lights
  • 1969 – Gary Snyder’s book of essays Earth House Hold published by New Directions
  • 1975 – Jack Spicer‘s Collected Books published by Black Sparrow

Meanwhile, across the bay in San Francisco, the commingling of several activities helped to prepare the ground for the remarkable literary explosion that was soon to take place. The Libertarian Circle held regular literary events; poet members included Kenneth Rexroth, Muriel Rukeyser, William Everson, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Thomas Parkinson. Rexroth also ran a literary program on KPFA, the country’s first listener-sponsored radio station. Madeline Gleason (assisted by Rexroth and Duncan) founded the San Francisco Poetry Center, housed at San Francisco State College and managed by Ruth Witt-Diamant. The magazines Circle, Ark, City Lights, Goad, Inferno, and Golden Goosehelped to consolidate the growing literary underground.

The famous reading at Six Gallery on Fillmore Street was publicized by Allen Ginsberg (via a hundred mailed postcards and a few flyers) thus: “6 POETS AT 6 GALLERY Philip Lamantia reading mss. of late John Hoffman — Mike McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder & Phil Whalen — all sharp new straightforward writing — remarkable collection of angels on one stage reading their poetry. No charge, small collection for wine and postcards. Charming event. Kenneth Rexroth, M.C. 8 PM Friday Night October 7, 1955 6 Gallery 3119 Fillmore St. San Fran.” On October 7, 1955, in a room measuring 20 x 25 feet with a dirt floor, Ginsberg “read Howl and started an epoch.”(4) Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, and Philip Whalen shared the bill and, by all reports, also read brilliantly. Aside from Rexroth and Whalen, all the readers were in their twenties. Again, in the words of Kenneth Rexroth, “What started in SF and spread from there across the world was public poetry, the return of a tribal, preliterate relationship between poet and audience.”(5)

These events, along with the flourishing of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookshop and publishing house, helped to inaugurate and consolidate what has become known as the San Francisco Renaissance. City Lights published Howl in 1956 (Ferlinghetti asked Ginsberg for the manuscript the same night it was read at the Six Gallery) as Number Four in the Pocket Poets Series. (It had been preceded by an extremely rare mimeographed edition, typed by Martha Rexroth and mimeographed by none other than Robert Creeley. Ginsberg’s Siesta in Xbalba had been mimeographed by the man himself on a freighter in the Alaskan Ocean.) Among the audience members that night was one who added his own chant, the young novelist Jack Kerouac, whose On the Road, published in 1957, was to make this reading and its readers legendary. It was also in 1957 that Charles Olson, rector of the experimental Black Mountain College, visited San Francisco and gave a series of lectures on Alfred North Whitehead at the Portrero Hill home of Robert Duncan and his companion, the painter Jess Collins. Among the attendees at the lectures were, of course, Duncan himself, but also Michael McClure, Gary Snyder’s Reed College friend Philip Whalen, Jack Spicer, and Richard Duerden. The same year saw the “San Francisco Scene” issue of Evergreen Review. Poet Helen Adam’s flamboyant 1961 ballad opera, entitled San Francisco’s Burning, epitomized the time, outrageous both aesthetically and socially. Other writers associated with the San Francisco Renaissance included James Broughton, Lew Welch, Ron Loewinsohn, Madeline Gleason, David Meltzer, Kirby Doyle, and Lenore Kandel.

Experimentation with forms of literature and lifestyle had long been an attractive characteristic of life in San Francisco. But the tolerance felt in Northern California was not as evident in Los Angeles. In 1957, an exhibit of work by assemblage artist Wallace Berman at the Ferus Gallery was closed by the Los Angeles Police Department, and Berman was jailed on charges of exhibiting “lewd and lascivious pornographic art.” Found guilty (by the same judge who ruled against Henry Miller), Berman and family left L.A. for San Francisco that year. Berman edited and published a fascinating assemblage magazine called Semina. After the raid of his exhibit at Ferus, he announced in Semina 2 that “I will continue to print Semina from locations other than this city of degen-erate angels.” Berman’s friend, artist George Herms, designed his own books and provided the artwork for others, including Diane di Prima. Herms had likewise found the political climate in L.A. intolerable and had preceded the Bermans to Northern California.

In the mid-1960s, John Martin’s Black Sparrow Press began publishing broadsides and booklets and has, over the years, published a wide variety of experimental and alternative poetry and prose, including work by Duncan, Olson, Spicer, and Creeley among very many others. Black Sparrow continues to publish in 1998 from Santa Rosa, California.

Because of the previous associations of house printer/designer Graham Mackintosh, Black Sparrow is linked to earlier literary small presses of Northern California, particularly White Rabbit Press (at the urging of Jack Spicer, Mackintosh resurrected the press in 1962, printing Spicer’s own Lament for the Makers); Robert Hawley’s Oyez Press (Mackintosh had printed its first book in 1963); and Dave Haselwood’s Auerhahn Press, which flourished during the 1960s and early 70s in San Francisco. Auerhahn published a wide variety of well-designed books, including The Exterminator, an early example of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s cut-up technique, in 1960. Auerhahn also published John Wieners’s first book, The Hotel Wentley Poems. Oyez published many memorable volumes including Philip Lamantia‘s Touch of the Marvelous. Joe Dunn’s White Rabbit Press, which had begun publishing in 1957 with Steve Jonas’s rough work Love, the Poem, the Sea & Other Pieces Examined, produced books somewhat less elegant than Auerhahn’s or Oyez’s but with a beauty all their own.

The editorial genius behind White Rabbit was the irrepressible Jack Spicer, who published his own remarkable mimeographed magazine, J. Spicer emphasized the inclusion of writers who were not well published elsewhere, and accepted contributions for consideration in a box that was kept in one of three bars in the North Beach area of San Francisco. J is representative of the best of the mimeograph revolution: an uncompromising editorial stance combined with a playful, even colorful, formal character thanks to Fran Herndon, who edited the artwork for the magazine. Spicer’s model for J was Beatitude,which had begun publication in San Francisco slightly before J. And a recalcitrant model it was, since Spicer was not a fan of the Beats and carried on a running war against Ferlinghetti in particular. He imagined Ferlinghetti had become commercial and financially successful, thereby, in Spicer’s mind, “selling out” to the establishment. Magnificently consistent with his principles, Spicer never copyrighted his own work, anticipating the “no copyright, no nuthin” statements of Tom Clark’s London-based Once series. The performative aspects of Spicer’s poetics as well as his personality also prefigured the rise of poetry readings in the 1950s, particularly those sponsored by the Poetry Center at San Francisco State, which featured mimeographed programs and booklets printing selections from the poets who were reading, among them, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, and Louis Zukofsky.

Although Spicer’s J didn’t publish the works of “established” poets, Spicer did include the work of Robert Duncan in four issues of his magazine. Duncan and Jess Collins (whose work adorned the cover of many magazines and books of the period, including Open Space, Caterpillar, and The Floating Bear) were important influences on the literary and artistic scene in San Francisco in the 60s. Duncan’s early work was published in Berkeley or North Carolina (his Song of the Borderguard was published by the Black Mountain College Press with a cover by Cy Twombly in 1952). Other earlier works were multilithed (Fragments of a Disordered Devotion in San Francisco in 1952) or mimeographed (the first hundred copies of Faust Foutu were mimeographed by Duncan himself, and the next 150 or so of one act of the play were multilithed by Joe Dunn of White Rabbit Press at his place of employment, the Greyhound Bus offices in San Francisco). The multilithed third edition of Faust Foutu, although also produced by Dunn, was published under Duncan’s own imprint, Enkidu Surrogate, of Stinson Beach. Duncan’s work was published by an amazing variety and number of publishers, including Oyez, Auerhahn, White Rabbit, Black Sparrow, Divers Press, Jargon, Perishable Press, City Lights, Grove Press, New Directions, and Scribners.

Slightly outside the Spicer circle (although some of his own poems were published in J) was Donald Allen, who, after the publication of The New American Poetry, 1945-1960 and before his removal to New York, established the Four Seasons Foundation in San Francisco, which published the work of a number of the writers from the anthology, including Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, Ron Loewinsohn, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Joanne Kyger, Robin Blaser, and Robert Creeley. Among the early Four Seasons publications were two important works by poet Gary Snyder (the Reed College roommate of Lew Welch and Philip Whalen and the “Japhy Ryder” of Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums): Six Sections from Rivers and Mountains Without End and Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, both published in 1965. Riprap, it should be noted, was originally published in 1959 as a booklet by Cid Corman’s Origin Press. Snyder’s Myths and Texts was published in 1960 by Corinth Books. Snyder was out of the country on an extended stay in Japan, and the text used for the Corinth publication was probably from a manuscript that LeRoi Jones had hand-copied from one that Robert Creeley had received from Snyder in 1955 or 1956. Snyder’s poetry was extremely popular in the 60s and was often used as text for broadsides by small presses, particularly those whose owners were ecologically minded. For instance, Snyder’s poem “Four Changes” was published in 1969 by Earth Read Out, a Berkeley environmental protection group, as four mimeographed pages, as well as in a folded, printed version in 200,000 copies by environmentalist Alan Shapiro for free distribution to schools and citizens’ groups.

Literary scenes with strong affiliations to the New American Poetry were in evidence elsewhere in California — most notably Bolinas in the 1970s, when that somewhat remote hippie village north of San Francisco became home to many poets. In particular, the transplanted easterner and Poetry Project veteran Bill Berkson and his press Big Sky flourished there in the decade, publishing both a magazine and a series of books. Bolinas residents of the period also included Robert Creeley, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, David Meltzer, Lewis Warsh, Tom Clark, Lewis MacAdams, Philip Whalen, Aram Saroyan, Joanne Kyger, Jim Carroll, and Duncan McNaughton, among others. Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, and Joe Brainard were among many occasional visitors, with Joe Brainard’s Bolinas Journal providing an interesting record of one such extended stay.

The Poetry Conferences at Vancouver and Berkeley

Poetry conferences at Vancouver (1963) and Berkeley (1965) were significant events that brought together and introduced a range of poets from diverse locations and temperaments. Warren Tallman was the man behind the conference in Vancouver, an event Robert Creeley described as “landmark” in that it brought “together for the first time, a decisive company of then disregarded poets such as Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Margaret Avison, Philip Whalen and myself, together with as yet unrecognized younger poets of that time, Michael Palmer, Clark Coolidge and many more.” The conference at Berkeley in July of 1965 further galvanized the gains made by the Allen anthology and the Vancouver event. Mostly organized and emceed by Thomas Parkinson and Robert Duncan, it featured readings and lectures by, among many others, Charles Olson, Jack Spicer, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Ed Dorn, Robert Creeley, John Wieners, Ed Sanders, Ted Berrigan, Joanne Kyger, Lew Welch, Ron Loewinsohn, John Sinclair, and Victor Coleman. For the senior poets, the Berkeley conference was at once a triumphant victory and the beginning of the end. In the years immediately following the conference, a general emigration of spirits took place. Jack Spicer‘s lecture on poetry and politics was to be his last public appearance; he died a month later. Within the next couple of years, a great many of the participants in the San Francisco Renaissance had moved from the area or passed away. Yet for many of the younger poets in attendance, the Berkeley Poetry Conference was the flash point of the mimeo revolution, the place from which much of the writing and publishing just ahead was to locate its identity and its momentum.

— Steve Clay & Rodney Phillips, 1998

1. Donald Allen, The New American Poetry (New York: Grove Press, 1960), p. xi.
2. Ron Loewinsohn, “Reviews: After the (Mimeograph) Revolution, ” TriQuarterly 18 (Spring 1970): 222.
3. Michael Davidson, The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 40.
4. Kenneth Rexroth, American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), p. 141.
5. Ibid.