The Mail Box At the Corner of Euclid Ave and Blvd St Germain
essay by Karl Young
Mail from d.a.levy was never simply mail. Frugal, busy, impoverished, generous, and concise as he was, the letters were usually brief, and typed on a sheet of letterhead size paper which he'd torn in half so the remainder could be used for something else. Even had he not been a stamp collector at one time, he probably would have recycled stamps, gluing used stamps that had escaped cancellation onto the envelope with what seemed to be rubber cement. The envelope, large or small, usually included some sort of publication - often his own, but at times a magazine or book published by someone else. His immediate mission seemed proselytization: he thought he knew what you needed and part of his job was to share his enthusiasms and convictions about poetry and other arts. You could see the extras in the envelopes as postal variants on the publications he hawked on the street, often giving them free to people he thought needed them. He also donated some of what he read to local libraries. Immediately before his death, he sent out packages to his friends and correspondents. Many contained books. Some contained sheaves of images he had clipped out of glossy mainstream magazines to use in collages, perhaps hoping, as he did with the books and magazines, that the recipients would make active use of them in their own work.
In the autumn of 1967 (if my memory reconstruction is accurate), I received a letter from him with copies of Le lettrisme, the official magazine of the French Lettrist group, folded up and inserted along with the torn sheet on which he'd typed his message. I don't recall him mentioning why he included the magazines. He might simply have done so because I was studying French lit at school. His reading in French poetry, philosophy, and theater was extensive, though apparently done in English translation. He may have received the magazines in exchange for publications he'd sent to French poets. The Lettrist magazines were, at that time, rather crudely produced, and were more concerned with film, sound poetry, and socio-political commentary than the visual poetry the group would later be more strongly identified with, though levy may have thought that the graphic nature of some pages related to my visual poetry. In retrospect, the most unusual, and the most meaningful aspect of this mail was that Lettrism was scarcely known in the U.S. at the time. The majority of the Americans who ran under the banner of "concrete" poetry, even before the Emmett Williams anthology had reduced the genre to the brittle minimalism that the overwhelming majority of readers would overwhelmingly reject as underwhelmingly trivial, were not looking toward Lettrism for inspiration. It is possible that levy was seriously interested in Lettrism; yet it seems more likely that hints at Lettrist tropes in some of his own poems came not directly from the French group, but from the European and Latin American poets who picked up ideas from the Lettrists. The Lettrist magazines levy sent not only introduced me to Lettrism, they gave me a glimpse into the huge net of levy's correspondences and his attempts at finding out everything that might be relevant and useful to him.
In the spring of the next year, a Lettrist splinter group, the Situationists, would be a driving force for what came to be called "the student revolt" in France. The events of the Paris Spring included the largest wildcat strike in history — over 11 million workers in a country of 55 million walked off their jobs, many to set up barricades in streets and roads throughout France. Since this was also the largest decentralized revolt in history, the press and the powers that were found it incomprehensible, and had to identify it with something they could grasp. The media successfully made the exceedingly loose coalition of everything from teamsters' unions to eccentric philosophers fit the stereotypes of student demonstrations happening throughout the world at the time. The Situationists provided a vocabulary and some root ideas to a disorganized conjunction of socio- political optimism and revulsion against the De Gaul administration, but nobody was really in control of anything. That the Communist Party played the decisive role in making deals with the government that returned the country to conservative normalcy shows just how uneasy a decentralized revolution could make those on both ends of the political spectrum, including those who previously seemed most radical. As a student myself, I was more than happy to believe the media deception of students taking over the country. Of the many oddities of the May revolt of 1968, one of the strangest was that a seemingly tight-knit cadre of æsthetes had come closer to bringing about political change (albeit in conjunction with an odd spectrum of non-artistic groups) than any of the more somber and dedicated revolutionary art movements of the century. For serious students of left- wing politics, the rapid dissolution of the revolt may seem a lesson in the inability of decentralism to succeed in maintaining a victory, even one that briefly went beyond anybody's wildest dreams. Another political aspect of the uprising didn't fully reveal itself for several decades. Revolutionaries from France, including Situationist silkscreen artists, went to Mexico City to try to assist in related demonstrations at the Olympics in October of 1968. The massacre of demonstrators at this event was the bloodiest of the era. The official body count was 300 dead, though most sources claim that's a laughable underestimate. Many who took part in the protests would reemerge as more violent activists throughout Latin America, particularly in the attempts at revolution in Central America in the 1980s.
For me personally, a curious and fruitful chain of events started with the copies of Le lettrisme I received from levy. In 1997, 30 years later, with the cooperation of David Seaman and Alain Satié, I set up the Lettrist movement's first official, consecrated web site. As a participant in the mimeo revolution of the 1960s, the opening of the web in the 1990s seemed like a return to the days of cranking publications out on mimeo machines. My site remained Lettrism's official electronic manifestation until November, 2004. In addition to the world's response to the U.S. election results, it was long past time for the official site to come from France, which was, after all, the movement's home. The Lettrists have not asked me to take down my Lettrist site, and as I write, it is undergoing an overhaul and expansion with their cooperation and encouragement, but the days of it being the main Lettrist site are over. Still, one of the proudest feathers in my web master's cap was that this quintessentially Parisian movement should have its web site emanate from a small apartment and student grade equipment in the great French metropolis of Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Simply passing art or poetry through the mail is most emphatically not classic mail art. Definitions of mail art may be as numerous as its practitioners, but all have one thing in common: to make use of the postal system or of characteristics of items sent through the mail in a specific manner that could not be achieved otherwise. As the movement grew, it took on several broad characteristics. The most forceful was the adamant, committed, and at times vehement or liberatory rejection of all forms of commercialism, censorship, and hierarchies.
levy at times seems to have worked in the mail art genre proper, though this may be deceptive. Are the books, which also resemble what later came to be called book art, which he exchanged with Ian Hamilton Finlay part of either genre? Whether they were or not, it's unquestionable that he and other people were creating networks through the mail, and that in his case, given his painfully short creative life, that his networks were immense and eclectic. It's difficult to know whether mail art as a genre might have taken on a different character under slightly different circumstances.
It's equally unquestionable that whether individual works that passed through the network should be considered mail art or not, the network was the main distribution system for visual poetry in the U.S. between the time the Concrete Poetry fad collapsed under it trivial weight and the world wide web gave the union of word and image a new chance at being seen outside the network. Whether you'd like to see the politics of the late 1960s as heroic or stale, we are now in the midst of a revolution in communication, based on the interaction of word and image, universal participation, and immense, global networks. Visual poets have ceased to be the Haitian Boat People of American poetry, and the genre seems to be the fastest growing on the literary scene today. How long that will continue and how it might change over time is impossible to say. It is, however, difficult to imagine a return to the complete exclusion of visual poetry from serious consideration between the early 1970s and the beginning of the new millennium, or the complete collapse of artistic networks which mail art foreshadowed.
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