FREEK Magazine, 1 -3


One 1970, 80 pp.; Two, 1971, 120 pp.; Three 1972, 80 pp.;
each perfect bound, 8 1/2" x 11"
Click on covers for enlarged images. Scroll down for essay.

FREEK Magazine
Edited and Published by Jim Spencer and Karl Young


Although I published some seven chapbooks and a number of broadsides and unclassifiable hybrids of my own work, cranked out some pamphlets and flyers with friends, and intended to publish books by other people, I shied away from publishing anyone else between 1966 and 1971. The late 60s and early 70s was a period when magazines were more common and carried more weight than alternative books. This paradigm was about to make a significant shift toward books. Perhaps this progression marks the transition out of the mimeo period and into the ad hoc offset mode that emerged in the 1970s.

Two essential models for magazines, those published by d.a.levy under shifting titles and Clayton Eshelman's Catterpillar didn't seem to work for me. levy's because he'd died for them, his tireless proselytizing for poets everywhere didn't seem to be taken on the nearly universal level for which it was intended, and the local scene in Cleveland, comparable to Milwaukee's, didn't seem worth it if it did not have sufficient outreach beyond its own bailiwick. Catterpillar's because I couldn't get the money together to do anything like it, and given my orientation to decentralization, didn't want to see too much power concentrated in a single space, even if I could somehow manage to control that space myself. It seemed the models lacked proportion and the ability to form mutual links in a network that would be inclusive but which would not be dominated by a single mode, movement, or group.

I had discussed the possibilities of publishing a magazine with John Shannon earlier, and we had done some sketches and dummies for it, but didn't go beyond that. Whether I did magazines or not, I definitely wanted to publish books, and had done some basic scheming about setting up a Kropotkinite cottage industry for doing so. The biggest problem was that I didn't know how to do any of this. Neither mimeo or make-shift letterpress, which I could do, seemed adequate for anything but the books of my own done so far - and even there, the limitations of mimeo were severe, and I had pushed them to their extreme. The main adjunct to my inability to go farther was that the period between early 1969 and 1971 was so personally and publicly chaotic and turbulent that learning how was not part of the picture. In fact, the picture itself had largely gotten lost in the later part of this phase.

Among the chaotic elements other than such obvious ones as the escalation of bombing into Cambodia and what seemed like the complete breakdown of any kind of political system that could be worked with on any level, there were endless personal problems.

In the autumn of 1970, feeling relatively stable again, I made a half-hearted attempt to begin graduate work in library science. At an informal reading in the university's student union, I recited several short poems from memory, not having copies of anything with me. Jim Spencer, a fellow with a considerable counter-culture reputation, was in the process of putting together what he thought of as a one-time-only magazine. He asked me if I wanted to contribute one of the poems I had recited. I was pleased with the response to the poems from the audience and equally pleased to be asked to contribute to the magazine. As soon as I had a little encouragement, I resumed writing poetry, which I hadn't done with any seriousness for the last year. As Jim worked on the magazine, we discussed the contributions of other people, and the possible things we could do as editors. He asked me if I wanted to either take over the magazine or co-edit another issue with him. I agreed to the latter.

Jim had the magazine produced by photocopier - an unusual step, since suitable machines were only beginning to appear at the time. We liked the results, but couldn't afford to continue that way. Besides, we were thinking of possibilities for doing all sorts of other publications and trying all sorts of editorial processes. As much fun as we could have with these schemes, they didn't get anything done, and we wouldn't be able to do much if we didn't learn how to do something other than pay someone else to do the printing with money we didn't have.

I had learned the basics of letter press printing in the primary school system, since Wisconsin is the printing capitol of the world, and I would have liked taking courses in it even if it was not required in the Industrial Arts program. Still, this didn't seem any more practical than mimeo. It was not unusual at the time for young working class males to use a buddy system in finding factory jobs. If one of the buddies found a job opportunity, he would apply for it with the other, both would take the initial interview together, each answering questions the other couldn't so that together they sounded like they knew what they were doing, and even if the employer could see through this, he'd know that the two were capable of teamwork. If the job was only offered to one, he did not take it, suggesting a kind of loyalty that might make a point to the hiring agent. The buddy system was one of the building blocks of a much more sophisticated era in U.S. labor's history, and we were lucky to be part of a generation that had not yet completely forgotten it, or relegated terms like "solidarity" to history books, folk songs, and theoretical discussions. Work was still plentiful at this time, and it wasn't that difficult to get a job, keep it for a few months, then drop it and go on to another when your money ran out. Again, this is part of America that now seems lost beyond retrieving.

Instead of going to a technical school, we decided to learn to produce books on the job. Most of the jobs we did get were at small, eccentric shops, usually ones that had seen better days, or were somewhat shady, or both. We got jobs as some of the last typesetters on Merganthaler hot lead machines for a fly-by-night company, for instance, but Jim only lasted a day and I didn't manage much more than a week. I only stuck it out that long only to get a sense of a technology that was already obsolete, though one which had been the means of production for many of the world's most important books. When I started, I didn't know how to cast type with one of these giants, though the fact that I was a two finger typist made the unusual keyboard configuration less of a challenge. If I didn't know what I was doing, it was appropriate. The employer was printing such items as bogus coupons and advertising for mail-drop businesses, and I was given the opportunity to make up the copy as I went along instead of set prepared texts.

Walter Witz, an elderly Swiss perfectionist, provided us with our best early jobs. Witz was semi-retired and did nothing but produce forms for Gimbals department stores. He worked mornings, playing polkas on the radio, and constantly cursing any single sheet of paper he might lose in the printing process. His extreme frugality made him a good, though difficult and demanding, teacher. In the afternoons, his son, who never spoke to us, ran the press that imprinted numbers on forms and did other skilled parts of the task of making such items as triplicate receipt pads. Jim and I did less demanding work of collating and applying padding compound to stacks of forms in screw-frames. The shop was located in a once prosperous neighborhood which had in effect fallen into what became known as the inner city. This was only a few blocks away from the Sears building, which had been the epicenter of fires during riots in the summer of 1967, and parts of the area had never been rebuilt or cleaned up. Witz and his wife and son were the only white people in the neighborhood, and he had installed multi-layered board walls over all the windows on the ground floor of the building. Jim and I got along fine with the black residents in the neighborhood, but the barricaded windows made the place a bit unsettling. Nonetheless, in the afternoon when Walter went upstairs to his apartment, and his son switched the radio over to a country western station, Jim and I went outside to take a couple tokes of grass, and spent the rest of the day talking as we assembled and finished the endless business forms.

I had been greatly discouraged by the most active local poetry scene as run at the time by Rich Mangelsdorf. Morgan Gibson had done an excellent job as impresario a few years earlier, bringing poets and savants to the university ranging from Paul Goodman to Kenneth Rexroth, and even coaxing Lorine Niedecker out of her retreat from the world of literatti. Morgan was the most likable of egomaniacs. He was constantly telling you that he was the greatest thing there ever was - and that you were, too. His constant enthusiasm was infectious and he probably did more to encourage young poets, playwrights, novelists, artists, and activists than anyone else who has ever lived in the city. Despite his ceaseless activity in the late 60s, he had gotten himself into a quicksand of problems through his anti-war activities in 1970, and was not only unable to support any kind of poetry scene in the city, he was constantly being harassed by both the faculty of the English Department at U.W. and by the FBI, who were in turn putting pressure on his colleagues at the university. Mangelsdorf had a particular vendetta against me. This came to such a fever pitch that he once attacked a poet by the name of Celia Young in a local newspaper, claiming that the only reason she had gotten into an anthology was because she was my wife, and I had pulled strings to get her included. She was unmarried, not related to me, a near recluse, and perhaps the only person in the anthology who'd gotten their solely on her own merits. Although there were several outstanding poets in the city, the hip contingent had largely become venal and most of the academics, lazy and timid. The city seemed to be living down to its lowest estimation of itself. I didn't want any part of either camp.

Jim insisted that poets simply needed a scene to flourish. It didn't matter too much to him how good they might be, just so they had a chance to get out from under venal hierarchies and be themselves. I had a similar sense that poets could flourish and do important work if only they allowed themselves to do so. If there was a way to build up self-confidence, and most of all to get poets interacting with each other and using that interaction as both support and stimulus, a local scene could develop that might act as a partner to those in New York and San Francisco, if perhaps on a smaller scale. After all, nobody was writing poetry better than Lorine Niedecker's, and she had just died on the last day of 1970 at her home some 40 miles away. How many others like her might there be in the area? How many might there be if they were brought into a scene that would in turn bring out abilities that only the strongest poets could realize in isolation? Just as important, who was going to read the stuff we published if we didn't find or create a participatory audience? This seems one of the most important lessons of the time: most poets may not be very good, but you need a large ecosystem to support any kind of publications, and you're not going to find that among many people who don't have immediate access to live poetry and other arts.

Our discussions along these lines lead us to what we called "Peoples Poetry," a publishing venture that would allow anyone who wanted it the opportunity to publish anything they liked under our rubric as long as we could get the costs low enough to make this a truly democratic proposition. In the process of putting Freek Two together, we tried to encourage contributors to edit their own work. Our job was simply to find them, offer them x amount of space, and then go over their selections very carefully with them, trying to make this a point of departure for larger discussions with other poets. Opening up a place where everybody had a chance to publish what they had might not create the kind of scene I wanted to see, but it seemed a reasonable place to start.

We learned a good deal from Walter Witz, but he would not consent to let us print our publications on his presses after hours. He was generous in offering to print them for us at reduced rates, but that was still not inexpensive enough for what we had in mind.

While at Witz's, we were looking for other printers to take the next step. We found one a few blocks to the west, on 35th Street, the great divide between the African-American part of the inner city and the Spanish speaking barrio on the other side of the street. The name of the shop was Wisconsin Speed Press, run by Ed Wolkenheim. Ed, under the name Ed Walker, had been an important radio DJ in the city, and had an exquisite gift of gab. He also drank excessively and loved cons and strange deals almost as much as Jim did. Would he hire us? Well, maybe, but first we had to have lunch with him and then proceed to a succession of bars. That didn't result in jobs, but it did establish a mutual friendship between him and me. Jim was at this time getting weary of the prospects of printing and had other games to play. After a lot of conversation and moving around the city with Ed, I started doing something like working for him. I got no regular pay, just a cut of whatever job I worked on.

How much could Jim and I use the presses and other equipment he had? Well, he wasn't sure about that, and ducked the question for a while with partial promises. He actually could get interested in what we wanted to do, but he had enough difficulty getting any of his own projects, let alone jobs that came into the shop, done. Jim wanted more of a formal type of arrangement, and left when he didn't get it. It was time for him to move on to other things, most importantly, singing and following any odd trails he could through the mazes of the counter-culture. It was also a time when his already erratic behavior was getting more pronounced.

The kind of "work" Ed and I did also got more unusual as time went on. We continued printing until the shop closed, but we also started seeing what we could do with other printing-related prospects. Milwaukee produces more print than any other city in the world. You can't go anywhere without finding magazines such as Newsweek or Cosmopolitan, printed in the city. This holds true for just about any kind of large job printing, from dictionaries to coloring books. This meant that there was a lot of expertise and used equipment in the city. With the latter, we tried to buy printers' tools that had been damaged or that had to be dumped quickly to pay the owners' debts or give them some money to get out of town. We could spend days or weeks eating lunch with other printers, and then make arrangements with them to handle each others' extra work loads. We could at times get a few large and lucrative jobs, and work industriously at them. But then we couldn't manage the smaller ones that came our way. We could bring in substantial sums as brokers of one sort or another, but such deals were completely dependent on chance. A good part of the time, the only thing that kept the shop from folding was the income Ed's wife Barbara brought in from her job at the phone company. She could be enormously tolerant with Ed, but the strains on the marriage increased as time went by. Ed's drinking continued to increase, and it became more difficult for me to get any of my own printing done at the shop.

I had already started on several other books and a new magazine by the time we got Freek Three completed. These early books were apprentice pieces in the most literal sense. We had a great photo for the back of Two, but the stock was so absorbent we couldn't print on it. Even maestro Witz couldn't do that. We did, however, silk screen a magnificent cover on reflective mylar for Freek Three. Ed's greatest skills were in the darkroom, and I learned more about cameras and platemaking than anything else at Speed Press. Although Ed could fantasize about reconstructing the presses of Gutenberg and doing perfect reproductions of the Mainz Psalter and the 52 Line Bible, he knew nothing at all about book binding. I had to invent an ad hoc means of doing that. I continued using the same methods until the early 90s. This was unfortunate, since the bindings weren't very good, and I never figured out how to do an adequate binding without needing to charge for the extensive labor of Smythe stitching and other bindings that would stay sturdy over decades.

We checked out recycled papers extensively, and decided to use nothing else in the business. However ill-starred this may have been, I continued using only salvaged stocks and the most environmentally sound recycled papers on my own press and even when farming books out after I lost that shop. The game has always been stacked against recycled papers, except those used for greeting cards and other low volume consumer goods. By the late 1990s, there were no responsibly made recycled papers available to me at a price I could afford, and I finally capitulated. My commitment to recycled paper played out in strange ways over a span of nearly 30 years. For the most part, there is no more boring subject on earth than the manufacture of responsible recycled paper, and I spent years trying to get people interested in using it, only to watch their eyes glaze over very quickly and, if I pursued the subject, yawns broke out on the faces of even the most polite. However, the recycled papers did give the books I published under the Membrane Press imprint a distinctive look, and I gained something of a reputation among paper salesmen. It was particularly surprising for me in the early 1990s to order some paper from a young salesman in North Carolina who had heard of the "strange guy up in Wisconsin who actually printed books on Bergstrom 100." During the Speed Press days, we set up booths to demonstrate how paper could be recycled and one of the last Speed Press schemes was a line of stationery.

Despite the many oddities and confusions of working with Ed, he proved a nearly ideal mentor and fellow student in many ways. The constant conversation we carried out for several years lead everywhere, and Ed's ability to think out loud in a way that could maintain just about anybody's interest made him a perfect source of information. He didn't know much about poetry, but could become interested in it, and he was the first sounding board for many of the ideas that were coalescing during this period. There were things I would have liked to have learned about printing during this period of apprenticeship, but did not. These might have been filled in by formal education. No matter what the disadvantages, however, learning how to improvise, talking to what seemed an army of printers, taking and apart and reassembling used machinery, taught me lessons I could not have gained in any other way. This worked when Ed instructed me in the camera work he knew thoroughly; it worked just as well when we tried to figure out how to assemble machinery or make deals when neither of us knew what we were doing. Aside from learning book production, this was one of my most prolific periods of writing poetry, and I think that has something to do with the constantly changing situations I found while working with Ed. A job in a stable and well-run shop would probably not have provided the kind of perppetual challenge and the stores of raw material opened up to me during this phase.

By the time I left Speed Press, I had bought a house within easy walking distance from the U.W. library, with a basement suitable to set up printing presses and other equipment.

Freek was in many ways the period piece this summary suggests. I haven't felt like reading much of it for this article. The period, however, wasn't such a bad one, and I'm glad to say didn't resemble the documentaries of the era that form a television staple and a backdrop for some wretched movies. Perhaps most important was that although Milwaukee's poetry scenes were in a dormant phase, the receptivity to poetry outside them was greater than at other times. This does not mean that it was better educated or that everybody you met wanted to hear or read your poetry, but they didn't brush it off or reflexively look on it with contempt as the general public has since. At the same time, it wasn't as divorced from other arts. Although Jim played rock, my main interests were in the blues, jazz, classics, and the experimental music of the time. Just because Jim and his audiences listened to rock a good deal of the time, it doesn't not mean that they did not categorically exclude other types of music. That Jim could both sing and write poems didn't seem unusual, and neither he nor I wished to do anything that might jeopardize the association between the two.

Jim went on to write complex music, often satirical, frequently forecasting trends in punk that would follow. He produced several albums, and began work on a cross between rock and Wagner called "The Wrath of the Ring Worm." Never casual about his efforts, Jim invented personae for himself, and made costumes for each. When he became a character called Major Arcana, for instance, his costume included a turban and a set of Tarot cards big enough so that he could put whichever one he chose on his back and make it visible for some distance. The character Frederick Murray Cramer took his name from three streets on the East Side. If you started at the first or last and turned onto the others, you would form a U.

On a personal level, I, like a lot of young people at the time, had been fascinated with some of the odder corners of subterranean culture, and Jim brought me at least partially into some of the most extreme of these. Time spent with Satanists turned me off completely, however, and my rejection of this fed into what had become full blown clinical paranoia on Jim's part. After several months of his accusing me almost daily on the phone or on the street of using him to try to infiltrate the group (to which he had introduced me), we went through a period of avoiding each other. We were never able to work together again, and had grown so far apart that this would have been unlikely anyway. But after his paranoia shifted elsewhere and grew more intense, we could continue being friends.

Jim apparently never met a drug he didn't need to subject to extensive personal testing, but alternated drug use with periods of pious meditation. He could go on cleansing diets, and then revert to eating huge quantities of junk food. We both used amphetamines, but generally for different purposes, For me, after the initiatory period, I used the lowest dosage that would simply allow me to stay awake and alert for long periods of time and to counteract the sleep-inducing effects of alcohol, recreational drugs, and those my psychiatrist prescribed. As time passed, I weaned myself away from them. Jim at times played musical pills. At the age of 39, he died of a stroke, probably induced by his excesses.

At the time of his death, I tried writing a memorial poem to him, but couldn't get it finished. It included the lines,

¿who's to say what happens     after this trip crashes for the last time-
it's ridiculous to conjure     punishments and rewards -
if ever there was anyone     ready for the wild ride
through kaleidoscopes and mazes     nightmares and elations
flights through red storms     like the one on Jupiter
drops through the corners of hyperspace     finding the waters of oblivion
are the purest acid     piling visions on visions
higher than the tortoises that hold up the world     it was you -
go for it if you must     one of the reasons we miss you
is because none of us     could restrain you from anything

Click here to return to Part 1 of Some Volumes of Poetry

Liner of one of Jim Spencer's records.