Margins Symposium Series
8" x 11"; saddlestitched, 1974-1975.

Margins Symposium Series, Part 1

The first issue of Margins, all 6 legal sized sheets of it, with a single staple in the upper left corner, came forth from Tom Montag's apartment on Bremen Street, Milwaukee, in August 1972. Dave Buege acted as co-editor, and Morgan Gibson and Marty Rosenblum acted as advisors. Instead of joining the lists of magazines that published poetry, theirs would concentrate on reviews and related criticism and commentary. The orientation was largely toward the kind of regional poetry to which Montag has since returned. That may have held a center of balance had Tom not been sincerely interested in what other people had to say. Although regionalism per se holds no interest for me, part of his midwesternness is the same kind that I still find essential and laudable: thoroughly pluralistic, and not much interested in hierarchies that didn't prove themselves. To me this has more to do with my residence and association with the midwest than the industries from which I learned a great deal or the landscape which I love or the history I admire or the Mound Building Native Americans who have fascinated me since childhood or the farms which remain largely unfamiliar to me.

I liked the neighborhood in which Tom lived, having moved out of it shortly before he moved in. Tom was completely friendly, without pretensions, and interested in anything that I had to say that had the potential of making sense to him. He had started publishing broadsides under Morgan Gibson's tireless encouragement. He had a tiny hand press designed to produce business cards, which he started trying to print with. He thought I could help him with it, though there's not much but business and greeting cards you can do with this kind of press - even if you have more expertise than I.

I felt skeptical about Margins when its first issue came out, but contributed several reviews to the third, and am listed with Marty Rosenblum as Contributing Editor in issue 4. In this period, I don't know whom Tom listened to most, or how much he was influenced by the changes from mimeo to offset which had caused a rapid expansion in alternative publishing. By issue 4, the tone of the magazine was no longer bucolic or regional in outlook, though such orientation was not altogether missing. This was the essence of the way the magazine worked during the next years. Tom and the other original staff brought other people into the magazine, and Tom expanded it according to their interests and his. Although the staff grew through associations, there was nothing homogeneous about its members. None completely agreed with any other, several felt antagonistic, and there was never a single occasion when the whole staff assembled in one place at the same time. Degrees of participation and contribution varied: I brought Richard Kostelanetz in, for instance, and he did little but supply Tom with copy of his own each month. Others carved out autonomous zones within the magazine. Tom did little to discourage this, even at times when those turfs caused contention. On such occasions, Tom's attitude was not to conciliate or look for compromises, but simply to duck the squabble and go with whatever both parties wanted to do. This strategy takes a lot of skill and some dissembling, but Tom was a master at it, and it may be the most salutary aspect of his editorship.

Tom also had a strong ability to learn what he was doing as he went along. Given his agility, flexibility, lack of biases, and unwillingness to feel belittled by the accomplishments of others, he could pick up new ideas from the wildly diverse group of people around him, and make them his own in his poems and criticism. This faltered near the end of the magazine's life, but during it's heyday, Tom was a model of what a poet, critic, and editor could allow himself to be. I haven't seen an editor like him since.

The magazine grew rapidly in size and keeping it going came to require an elaborate support structure. Tom's wife Mary was willing to finance her husband's efforts by working as a nurse. This was not an unusual situation in literary or political circles, but Mary's family moved the oddness of the situation and the moment in American culture into hyperspace. Her father was a professor of Botany at the University of Wisconsin, and her mother was not only a Professor of English Lit, but also the chair of the department during a good deal of the magazine's existence. They lived in a large house near Lake Michigan that at one time had been the preserve of those near the top of the financial heap - people who had servants and large houses, but could not quite afford the mansions a few blocks east on the lake shore. As Tom's involvement in Margin grew, his parents-in-law, Kay and Phil Whitford, invited them to live in one set of servants' quarters in the house. These "quarters" were more comfortable and spacious than the apartments of many staff members. For a brief period Marty Rosenblum and his wife occupied a subsidiary set of servants' quarters without getting in the way of the elder Whitfords, the Montags, and Mary's brother, who also had rooms in the house.

Tom converted most of the basement into offices. Here he could not only work on the magazine, but also look after his first daughter, Jennifer, and the second, Jessica, who was born while the magazine was in operation. With children present, there was a television constantly on in one of the office rooms. I carried an armada of colored pens in my shirt pocket, along with such tools as a miniature flashlight, ruler, magnet for fishing things out of my press, and so on. During most of my conversations with Tom - some of which went on for six or seven hours - Jessica sat on my lap and drew pictures, sometimes with me making suggestions, putting balloons and speeches in characters' mouths or adding other details. I like kids, and liked the family orientation of the offices. I don't know how some of the other staff members managed kids on their laps and blaring television in the background. I did after all believe in cottage industries and integrated communities, and this one seemed like part of my "federation," though Tom and I didn't talk much about that kind of politics.

Others had axes to grind. We thus had the situation where the basement supported a constant flow of editors who ranted and raged about the evils of the privileged classes, the degeneracy of academe, the scummines of "straights," the need to destroy the nuclear family, and so on and on in the basement of a former mansion owned by two well-heeled professors, who personally and financially supported their son-in-law's ever-growing, never-paying magazine. I found it absolutely delightful that Kay and Phil not only supported this, but actually found the downstairs zoo interesting. Kay at times became directly involved with reviews of reprints of labor and feminist lit from earlier eras, particularly the 1930s.

Important to me, and in character with the informality of the house, they left the back door open or a key out for me at night so I could come in at, say midnight, and set type for my books until perhaps three in the morning. While doing this, I might hear Kay and Phil listening to an opera recording just as I came in, and, more faintly, an old movie from Tom and Mary's rooms after the elder Whitfords had gone to sleep.

By the beginning of 1974, Margins was unquestionably the most important review journal for alternative literary presses in the country. Review copies poured in by the hundreds. Poets from around the world came to visit. One of the indicators of the magazine's importance that amused me most was that during my annual pilgrimages to New York, I may have been treated graciously by the tribal elders, but people my own age invariably tried to brow-beat me into reviewing them or getting them onto the staff - as often as not telling me that I needed to move to NYC in between salvos on what I was supposed to do for them back in Milwaukee.

Although not too many people like to give the magazine its due credit now, a lot of prominent poets got essential reviews and opportunities to write and to make contact with others through the magazine. As a sort of bench mark, I like to point to Hannah Weiner: I commissioned the first, and virtually the only, essay she wrote, and arranged for Dick Higgins to publish the first review of anything of hers ever published - both for Margins. That seems emblematic enough. Another signature comes from two magazines which came in to take the place of Margins shortly after it folded. American Book Review took over the more reserved functions of the magazine, while Fact Sheet Five took off from its more egalitarian and comprehensive characteristics. I don't know if these zines owed much directly to Margins, but I think it's safe to say that they would have not been the same had Margins not preceded them. Rochelle Ratner, who became ABR's managing editor, wrote regularly for Margins, and I think my association with her outlasted that with anyone else on the staff.

What I Wanted to Accomplish with the Symposiums

In addition to my having the opportunity to write whatever I liked for Margins, and to commission all sorts of things from other writers, I set up clusters of reviews and several reviews in sequence through several issues.

But the most important opportunity the magazine offered me was a platform for symposiums on contemporary poets. I had been thinking along similar lines with Stations, and having Margins available further stimulated my ideas in this area. Something to bear in mind is that at this time the only series even remotely resembling this was Berry Alpert's Vort, and a "special issue" devoted to a given writer in just about any other magazine consisted of three or four reviews and a photo. John Taggart had done something similar to the symposiums in Maps, but that magazine was long-gone when Margins started. The plethora of special issues of the late 70s and early 80s came after Margins folded, and was probably stimulated by Margins and Vort. In the early 80s, Johnathan Williams lamented contributing to Margins because everybody asked him to contribute to their special issues and Festschrifts during succeeding years.

At the same time, it's both amusing and sad to look back at my naivete during my 20s, when I thought I'd always have Margins or something like it available to me, and that I could continue working out criticism from multiple points of view in all the extravagance Marry and the Whitfords could finance. Perhaps even more so, I imagined a national lit scene open enough to support pluralistic efforts by the time the web made resumption of something like the symposiums affordable again.

My first impulse and coherent planning on the symposiums is simply an extension of my thinking on triangulation, particularly its extension into criticism. I had grown wary of the single voice of authoritarian criticism before I started Stations, and thought that books should inherently deserve more than one review. My view was, and still is, that a solitary review of a book includes inherent falsification. Likewise, a group of comments could not add up to some sort of absolute pronouncement. But their variety could open up the work in ways that no single review could. The symposiums could not only explore the works considered from different points of view using varying methods, they could also act as commentary on those viewpoints and methodologies themselves. How much more or less do you get out of one approach than another? Well, here was an empirical way to try that out through a range of subjects and commentators. I had grown tired of what exponents of various schools had labeled "fallacies." There should be nothing absolute about an author's intentions, and it shouldn't be your sole guide to understanding or evaluating what you read, but notions such as "the intentional fallacy" seemed not only nonsensical, but part of a priestly cast of critics who claimed the right to arbitrate and unfold all significance, leaving the poets as something like test animals used to determine what kind of warnings should be placed on labels of consumer goods.

That priestly cast had been what The New Criticism had been about, and seemed to be sneaking back, even into the alternative publishing scene. It seemed fine to me to include some crit by people who did not write poetry, but the majority of it should be done by practicing artists. They knew more intimately what they were talking about, and did so from the point of view of active participation. All sorts of people constantly complained about the obscurity of contemporary poetry. Of course, this didn't mean they paid any more attention to a completely unobscure poet such as Charles Reznikoff than they did to Louis Zukofsky, but it did seem that there should be different ways to bridge the gap between artist and audience through self or peer assistance. If the writers had more practice in explaining themselves it might help audiences and artists understand each other better. I had hopes that having the opportunity to create a body of their own criticism, a vocabulary of their own, and a methodology not divorced from the arts practiced, that the critics might not only explicate their fellows, they would also tend to provide insights into their own work as well. Eventually, I hoped that some of the commentators and guest editors would come to be focal points of some of the symposiums in the future. The reviewers themselves should be as much the "subject" of a review as the work written about, and the milieu and readership of the work should be as much part of the condition of reading as the reviewer and author. I didn't like the terminology or many of the ideas coming from semiotics and other critical methods gaining ascendancy at the time - hence I simply liked to say, and still prefer to put it, that traditional concepts of subject, object, and referentiality needed to reconfigure themselves through variations in practice.

As I proceeded with the symposiums, I noted that contributors tended to take a less reserved approach than they might if they were writing for, say Paris Review or The New York Times Book Review. This seemed something to encourage. At the same time, it made another possibility more appealing. By the time I got the first couple issues out, my long-range goal was to create a a series that could be revised and sold as a package to a main stream publisher. Twaine was the first that came to mind, though others seemed feasible. Selling a series of, say, 50 symposiums as a set of books could have several advantages in addition to those most immediately apparent. If the contributors had at times been rather casual with the drafts they supplied for Margins, they might be less so in revising them for publication in books. If some did and some didn't, it would simply increase the diversity of approach in each. With classic Syndicalism in the back of my mind, it also seemed likely that if I could sell the series as a package, if poets d, m, and x hadn't done very well in reputation and prestige, they'd still be part of the package, and couldn't be dumped. At least I'd have more to bargain with in keeping them in if the rest of the group had done well enough. Thus, in addition to the other benefits of the series, I also saw it as a rough draft of a set of books on later 20th century American poetry with no orientation toward clique or school or any other bias, except for the richness, experimentation, and diversity of the era.

The First Symposiums

I would not have wanted the series to be tied into editorial conformity any more than I'd want cookie cutter contributions. Hence it seemed best that I should edit one in five myself and invite guest editors for the rest. I initially had a bit of trouble selling Tom on the idea of giving each editor as close to complete autonomy as possible. We did agree to set a size limit and to avoid anything that would cause technical problems. We also set bounds to fall back on in case something went awry in ways that we could not predict. If an editor decided to turn a symposium into a screed against a magazine or gallery which had rejected him, or if it became a personal vendetta against an individual, or a tool in romancing the subject, or a polemic which ignored the nature of the poet, or anything else that ran outside the reasonable bounds of symposiums on contemporary poets, we did retain the right to pull the plug, assign a new editor, declare a moratorium until the editor went through treatment or detox or whatever might be necessary. Other than that, I gave each editor a completely free hand in editing.

Despite the freedom offered, I wanted to make sure that nothing would go too far wrong with the initial entries, in part to establish their validity with their readership, in part to set a standard for those that would follow. I also wanted to establish two things early if I could: 1. credibility as to seriousness of purpose and method, and 2. a broad-based readership. Realizing that some symposiums would get strange on their own and that some should stress heterodoxy - and that all were coming out of the counter-culture of the day, it seemed wise to begin the series with an unimpeachable subject, and a completely trusted editor. This worked out as a symposium on Guy Davenport, edited by John Shannon.

There was a bit of a wink in my decision to lead with Davenport. Dick Higgins and I discussed a somewhat similar project a decade later which may explain this. We decided that we should produce a Festschrift in a stringently scholarly manner on the work of Walter Savage Landor. All entries would be full dress, observing whatever rules the MLA stylesheet consecrated. But all would be written by people who had gained a reputation as extreme eccentrics, as far outside the academic mainstream as possible. This was pure fun, but it did refer back to Dick's amusement with my opening move in the symposium series as well as our mutual enthusiasm for Landor.

Davenport, for me, however, was not just a respected scholar. He was one of the most devoted polymaths on the scene at the time, and whatever else was going on in that first issue, I did want it to focus on a Renaissance man, as much at home painting as writing as translating. He should have connections with a complete spectrum of contemporary poets, and it didn't hurt that he had been corresponding with Michael McClure during Michael's most rebellious phase, knowing that Michael would be the subject of one of the symposiums. Davenport had translated Greek classics, written avant-garde poetry, championed conservative and radical poets alike. He knew his Homer and Dante, but could study and discuss the arts of the Russian revolution just as easily. He had had a strong impact on me, and I assume had been as open to correspondence with other young people as lost in lunacy as I was when I first began writing to him. His proteges had included Ronald Johnson (potential subject for a future symposium) and Stan Brakhage, and I had hopes that others of their range might be forthcoming from the strangely creative area around Lexington, Kentucky - home at times not only of Davenport, Johnson, and Brakhage, but also of Gerrald Jannecek, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, and Thomas Merton. Ernesto Cardinal had been a novice in the latter's monastery, and it was as Merton's student that he was introduced to the poetry of Ezra Pound. There was no way I could have known that this would lead to the comic but effective use of Pound's ideas of imagism in the workers' writing programs of Sandinist Nicaragua, but this was precisely the kind of extension of possibilities and connections I wanted to see reflected in the further activities of the participants in the symposium series. As much as Davenport was open to new approaches in the arts, he was also an arch commentator on any subject that happened to come before him, and hence something like a model writer for symposiums like the one focused on him.

The second planned symposium was on Diane Wakoski, then at the height of her power, and as popular a figure as a serious poet could be. My hunch in the latter regard proved right when the entire print run sold out almost immediately. Okay: this should fulfill goal two: if the first symposium suggested that this wasn't going to be a series of infantile gushy fan zines for someone like Charles Bukowski, the second reached out to a broad audience without any kind of elitist aura. That it was edited by Toby Olson, one of the figures who had read with her in the coffee houses in lower Manhattan during the previous decade, when live readings had achieved their most creative and transformative dynamics, in a scene that either joined or ignored cliques, made this symposium more important to me. As with John, Toby was an editor whom I could trust completely. The scheduling of this symposium, however, was one of those best laid plans of mice and men, not being completed until after two more installments appeared.

I had tried some small variations on the symposium approach before this, but it seemed a particularly good time to try it on Assembling magazine. Assembling was completely unedited, something like a magazine application of mail art. The restrictions on contributors were that they could include no more than three leaves each and that they would have to produce the leaves themselves and send them to Richard to be assembled and distributed. For this gathering, I sent invitations out to all those who had contributed to the last issue. The participants in this gathering included quite a few who would become prominent later. Kostelanetz extended the symposium when he reprinted it in Assembling Assembling, an anthology of Assembling related work.

If Davenport and Wakoski seemed ideal for openers, Rochelle Owens and Michael McClure seemed important as figures to present early on in what I hoped would be the body of the series. Curiously, these poets shared characteristics that definitely did not come from a common literary antecedent. The mid 70s was a time when poetry readings thrived, and sound poetry was making a rapid ascendancy. Rochelle and Michael had been central to the aural poetry of the previous epoch. Michael had been part of the original Beat scene on the west coast, often reading to jazz accompaniment, and almost invariably to poets who saw public readings as the central sacrament of their movement. Michael continued to read to musical accompaniment after the San Francisco Bay scene turned venal. Rochelle had held forth voluminously in the coffee houses and bars on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 60s, which picked up some energy from Michael’s North Beach scene, but also brought in influences from Black Mountain College, the poses of what was called the New York School, the cool suavity of FLuxus, and also the raw energy of that city in its post-war bragadoccio and the fact that lower Manhattan was more thoroughly crammed with artists of all sorts in the most feverishly inventive and hyperactively cross-breeding frenzy the world had ever known.

The intensely oral nature of the poetry of each seems to have lead in parallel directions. In one set of parallels, both wrote plays that pushed the boundaries of what could be done with a scripted play about as far as possible. This was at a time when Happenings and other forms of lightly or completely unscripted performance seemed in the process of leaving traditional theater behind. I wondered (quite mistakenly, as I see now) if they were the last poets in the great tradition of English language drama, poised on the edge of a completely new dispensation.

At about the same time, both had worked with complete abstraction, without contact with each other, without knowledge of precedents in the Zaum movement, and with, at most, only the briefest anecdotal acquaintance with Hugo Ball and other Dadaists. Why they should share this distinction among American poets, I don't know. It was important to me, however, and my hunch was that it came from scenes in which public readings played an essential role.

I edited the original Margins symposium on Rochelle Owens in a state of what now seems wild optimism. Rochelle began publishing at the beginning of the 60s, writing some of the most highly experimental poetry of the time, and doing so in perhaps the most ferociously misogynist literary milieu of the century, without a trace of any sort of women's network or support group behind her. This was a time when women were exhorted to leave their wretched roles as housewives and aspire to the great libaratory condition of being a poet's bread-winner and muse, but go no further than that. Except when performing sexual services, they were supposed to keep their mouths firmly shut. A literary hero like William Burroughs could even turn the shooting of a wife into his most important career move. By the mid 70s, feminism was in full flower, and language poetry, which Rochelle's early work had foreshadowed by more than a decade, was in its formative period. Rochelle had moved into a phase in which personae, mythic archetypes, and strains of Judaic mysticism played a strong role in her poems, and the dramatic character, latent in the dynamic readings of her early work, had evolved into the writing of plays. Voices had always been crucial in Rochelle's poems and plays on many levels. In the most abstract early poems, the coloration of voice, sometimes taking slurred speech as it base, sometimes finding its origins in the first stirrings of anger or joy, sometimes feeling out the strange edges of irrational parataxis, could modulate on the page through an intuitive process that has little if any precedent in any previous poetry I'm aware of. This could further morph into an almost coldly mechanical deadpan in works that suggested automatic writing. When Rochelle moved on to the personae poems, the changes of voice could turn in mid word or mid phrase, so that individual works should not be considered as persona but as personae poems - poems in which the mask changes as the voice modulates. At times, there also seemed possibilities for a synthesis of some forms of visual poetry in her work. My hope had been that she could act as a central figure in an integration of some of the disparate trends of the time - that she was, as Jane Augustine put it in her essay on Rochelle in the symposium, a prophet. Certainly prophecies in her early work were being fulfilled in the work of others as the symposium came together. But the great synthesis I had hoped for in the 70s didn't happen. Where would we be now if such a synthesis had taken place? Well, that's a legion of opportunities missed, and something an aging poet can look back on with a bit of sadness, but that's mere personal speculation. As one of the two most completely and rawly inventive poet of the second half of the century (the other being Jackson Mac Low), Rochelle was the center of gravity for what I thought of as my first tier of symposiums. This one I emphatically wanted to edit myself.

Click here to go to Rochelle Owens's home page, which includes parts of the symposium, and updates on it.

Michael McClure's symposium seemed equally important in that it was, from my point of view at least, blatantly proscriptive, and I arranged for it in a state of wild-eyed optimism similar to Rochelle's. If I didn't edit it myself, I at least wanted to make particularly sure it would be done by someone I could trust completely. Fellow Margins editor John Jacob seemed precisely right. In fact, as an odd but perhaps instructive coincidence, he had been thinking of doing something like this before I asked him to edit the symposium.

From the time Michael had acted as one of the founders of the Beat movement, he always retained a mercurial character. He could write poetry as the roars of animals, but those roars often came forward in his oral delivery with a surprising gentleness and delicacy, which could modulate into other tonalities. Although his “beastspeak” might come across to some as “primitivism” driven to its most extreme, Michael also had a firm base as a biologist, thoroughly conversant in the science of the time. On one level, it was something of a coup to include in the symposium an essay on his poetry by Francis Crick, Nobel Laureate for his role as co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. To me this represented something that poetry should maintain, a strong tie with those who explored what we are through the disciplines of science, and the practitioners of poetry and biology should see the confluence between each other’s labors. Michael could hang out with Hell’s Angels and go through periods of extended altered consciousness by use of hallucinogens, but he could also be a completely suave and witty writer of plays that drew on resources as diverse as Renaissance masques, ritual drama, existentialism, and the theater of the absurd. Not only could he relate to scientists but also to rock musicians, writing lyrics for some, including a favorite of mine, Janis Jopplin’s “Oh Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” Most important to me, and I think a major factor in his ability to move from one artistic milieu to another, is what I think of as “Orphic” lyricism. No one in the Beat dispensation could bring the delight in immediate perception and sensation to a level of complete articulation as well as Michael. In the mid 70s, I felt that this kind of lyricism was being submerged by the dull drone of workshop poetry swamping the scene at the time. To me, he remains the central lyricist of the second half of the century. If poets want to exalt the personal, Michael’s ex-stasis seemed a better model than the endless sexual bragging and personal whining that dominated large swaths of the poetry scene, and still do today.

Click here to go to Michael McClure's home page, which includes portions of the symposium and updates on it.

Planned Symposiums and the End of Margins

By the autumn of 1976, I had finished the first round of symposiums, seen them published, and had several more in the works. Of those that were published elsewhere, see Margins Symposiums, Part 2. By this time, the magazine and Tom's family had become strained. Tom was unable to get one of the finished symposiums out according to any kind of schedule, and was unsure how to handle finances and editorial problems. He spent a good deal of time talking and writing about this after the magazine folded. These stories are (or were) his to tell. Some rancor remained on the parts of some people involved, and Tom's inability to recognize the contributions of his staff still has some Margins editors annoyed or disgusted to this day. Although lack of credit where it is due is a common enough phenomenon (perhaps we could call it an epidemic), Tom, on the credit side, didn't cast any blame for the magazine's collapse on anyone.

Click here to return to Some Volumes of Poetry

Click here to go to Symposiums, Part 2

Tom and Jennifer Montag in
an office location on the eastern East Side.