I would like to introduce a neglected classic, the novel Valga Krusa by the poet Charles Potts. Potts—aka Laffing Water— who arrived in Berkeley from Utah [Idaho] via Seattle in 1965, and quickly made himself a familiar figure in the poetry scenes not only of the East Bay but of San Francisco. He was a tireless organizer of reading series, a liaison between poets, revolutionaries, and the pacifists of the Peace and Freedom movement. He had already begun publishing the magazine Litmus before he arrived in California, and continued to issue it for many years thereafter. Valga Krusa, like Litmus records much about this time of social ferment and upheaval, and in doing so, affords a unique view of the poetry of the sixties. Published on Potts' own press, Litmus Inc., in 1977, the novel was written years earlier, concurrent with the excitement it records.
Those poets who matured in the previous decade, who were to some degree instigators of the excitements of the sixties—Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Diane Di Prima, among many others—look very different when viewed from the community of younger poets even further out than themselves. Potts and his peers exemplify the ways in which the New American Poetry shaded into poetry of the streets, the be-ins, the mimeo mags, even the Sexual Freedom League. Richard Krech (ed., Avalanche), Julia Vinograd (still the bubble-lady poet of Telegraph Ave), Andy Clausen (strips off, reads nude), John Oliver Simon (ed., Aldebaran Review), Alta (sexually outspoken no-b.s. woman poet), John Thomson (of FUCK fame), Pat Parker (who brought blackness into the largely white world of these writers), Herb de Grasse (wildly eccentric filmmaker), Mel Buffington (ed., Blitz), and Country Joe of the rock group C. J. and the Fish, are just a few of the colorful persons who undergo little literary transformation into the same-name characters of Potts' novel.
We see their impatience with the better-known poets, who are often at odds their heroes and their villains, figures being transformed into the latest establishment. There is no doubt that the existence of this underground-the-underground community in the Bay Area had its effect on those poets whom we now think of as the principals of this period. Their appraisals helped keep them honest. While few among this loose-knit group are remembered today, their radical faith in the revolutionary power of poetry constituted an horizon for the times, an instigation and a goad. While much different in their formal approaches, some of the poets, later to be known as Language poets, started out in this ferment: Ron Silliman first met Barrett Watten on Telegraph Ave. (Nor should we forget that Lyn Hejinian lived on a commune during the 70s.)
There is another novel that makes a good companion for Valga Krusa. Short, where VK is long, quiet, where VK is definitely not, Pamela Millward's Mother (published by Don Allen's 4 Seasons Press in 1970) is an account of a young woman accommodating (and not) herself to the hippie life of the Bay Area and Sonoma County (where she lived for a while on a commune). Some of the same, famous figures can be seen in Millward's book as appear in VK, and again, through a contemporary lens that offers distinctly uncommon views of their subjects.
(This review was originally delivered as a lecture at The National Poetry Foundation Conference in Orono, Maine, in July of 2000.)