Water Street Arts Center
Part 1: 1972 to 1975

Pat Wagner and Karl Young,
at Water Street Arts Center, April, 1974

Water Street Arts Center
Part 1

Friends, Resources, and the Times

I first met Pat Wagner in the spring of 1971 when she moved to Milwaukee after an unhappy sojourn as a student at Goddard College. John Kishline, an actor at Milwaukee's most dedicated experimental theater, Theater X, introduced us. We hit it off immediately. She remembers this as my "kindness to a lost soul." She didn't seem lost to me, just discouraged and in need of a better deal than she'd had. We spent a lot of time talking - what we would come to call scheming. Later, I made arrangements for something like employment at Ed Wolkenheim's shop, cautioning her on the problems of low pay, inconsistent schedules, etc. In her part time employment at Speed Press, she brought something like a vague hint at the possibility of a certain amount of organization to the place. For all the qualifiers in that last clause, it was a significant accomplishment.

What Pat remembers of the place she sums up as "Little details flash in my mind . . . sitting around the table while Ed drank and we schemed. Your advice about reading. Running presses." The most important part of this for me in this article was the scheming. Scheming was a word that took on extra, at times almost supernatural, connotations in our conversation. It's something we did not only at Ed's, but in every venue from my front porch to Jake's Deli, where our lunches could last more than three hours, to my car, to the Water Street Arts Center once that had become one of the manifestations of the schemes. When talking, we usually did diagrams, flow charts, organizational outlines, etc. as well as lists and doodles. Hence we never spoke of a "pen" but always a "scheming pen."

I'd been scheming for years about methods of making poetry public and creating an environment for it to do so. More recently, I had purchased a house with a large down payment provided by an inheritance from my grandfather. The house was strategically located: within easy walking distance of the U.W.M. Library and equally close to the Milwaukee River. If you walked down the trails to the river, you could forget that you were in the middle of a city. A hospital was within easy walking distance - that closeness may have saved me from losing a finger a decade later. As part of the East Side, it was in the Bohemian part of the city, which not only meant that it included a lot of hip people, but also that it housed many stubborn old timers who had expertise in printing and memory of the radical politics of a former era.

Internally, the house had a studio on the second floor in addition to rental space to pay for the utilities and at least part of the mortgage, a spacious ground floor, and a large and dry basement. This seemed a perfect house for a cottage industry. I mused at the time on Gaston Bachelard's analysis of space: the studio upstairs was the brains of the cottage industry; the ground floor was the place where daily life centered, where food, sleep, and socializing went on in a middle ground; and the basement was the appropriate place for the machinery and production. Although the building involved a hierarchy, it also provided continuity and egalitarianism: the captain in the tower was the same fellow who ran the subterranean and partially demonic mill in the basement. There may have been a boss function up on the second floor, but management and labor were not separated between different people, one of whom had to be the other's subservient.

Likewise, poetry should not be something practiced by wingèd and aetherial creatures who perpetually hovered up in the rarefied regions of theory, nor should it be confined to the domestic level or the basement where sweat and strain played a role as important as intellection. I learned very early that I did not want to spend my life working in a factory, but growing up in a factory town meant that I wasn't intimidated by industrial machinery. Going to college at a time of radical unrest, political foment, and a certain amount of venality and cowardice on political issues by some of the faculty in regards to their fellow academicians who had engaged in anti-war activities, also convinced me that I didn't want to spend all my life in what people called an ivory tower, however much the nearby library meant to me and however much time I would devote to study. This was a house suited for an integrated life of artistic activities that flowed through each other and fed each other.

The late 60s was a period of endless arguments about glorious revolutions and heroic changes dramatically wrought. The Civil Rights movement did indeed seem to have brought about sweeping changes relatively quickly, and despite evidence to the contrary, many idealistic young people expected to see an end to racism in their lifetimes. 1970 was a pivotal year. Given the complete degeneracy and depravity of the Nixon administration and the failures of efforts that in one way or another required the cooperation of the political system as it stood, some turned away altogether. A minuscule, though wildly publicized, few had gone to violent action. In Milwaukee, a dissident had blown up a grocery store and been killed by the police as he ran from the building. Violence wasn't restricted to the radical left. The photos at the top of this page first appeared in an underground newspaper called The Bugle American. Its offices were fire bombed by a right wing group several months after the photos appeared. For the largest number of disaffected, however, this was the beginning of what some called the AS IF period. The basic notion here was to stop talking about this glorious revolution that probably wasn't going to happen and that wouldn't do anything but make things worse if it did. Instead, let's act AS IF a glorious transformation has already happened, and, with the coda to the I.W.W. constitution in mind, "build the new society within the shell of the old." Milwaukee would go farther than many cities. We had not only the predictable plethora of food co-ops, but also two alternative print shops (the one other than mine was called Babylon Press), and co-ops for everything from auto repair to a fully staffed clinic.

Before I had a press set up in my basement, it became clear to me that simply producing books and magazines wasn't enough. It was also necessary to figure out ways to distribute them. It seemed that even at this time, before the biggest growth period of independent presses, there were a fair number of alternative publishers around the country who had attics, garages, basements, and closets full of unsold publications. There were still plenty of bookstores around, but most of them would only take a few books from alt presses, and usually wouldn't give them much display. I visited Ann Arbor regularly, and liked the first of the Border's stores there, as well as the other bookstores around the University of Michigan. Without thinking of the mega-chain Border's would eventually become, I did see Ann Arbor's bookstores as a partial model. Would it be best to try to expand the functions of a traditional bookstore, or to try a distribution system altogether outside of available precedents?

Walt Whitman had proclaimed that "for there to be great poets, there must be great audiences." I took that seriously. That the hip culture of the day, for all its faults, held poetry in higher esteem than any other sub-culture suggested that a great audience might indeed be in the process of forming. Perhaps this could be encouraged with magazines like Freek, which tried for the broadest possible inclusiveness. Perhaps a more active scene for readings and discussions was more important than anything else. I'd seen one poetry scene that grew almost frantically in Cleveland, and then came crashing down on itself. I had also checked out New York and other megalopolises and seen coffee houses and bars generate more distribution than stores could manage. I didn't want to move permanently to an arty dream world such as those of Lower Manhattan or North Beach. That seemed much like becoming a professor who lost contact with the world outside his ivory tower. Perhaps the thing to do was to combine bookstores with coffee houses. Or, better yet, set up art centers where the various arts could feed each other, and an audience for one art could easily spread to others - and, of course, all could interbreed more copiously.

What I wanted most was a strong local scene that could "breathe." That is, one that could host poets from other cities and create interchanges between locations. This was a model of decentralization, something that could encourage pluralism, disrupt complacency, venality, and local styles which became fads instead of means to achieve something new. Certainly, Milwaukee should not simply act as a farm to feed its best to New York. That's no way to build a great audience, just to prop up a tired model that had already functioned too long, and had worked much better in Paris and Mexico. In fact, if there was an arts capital, no matter how much people might screech their left wing politics, this was a kind of pun on capitalism in itself. If it wasn't exactly based in magic markets that would always self regulate to the benefit of everyone, it still carried the capitalist curse of draining the majority to enrich a tiny elite. I didn't see much difference in this than the centralization that had failed so dismally in Marxist regimes in the Soviet Empire and in China. For Milwaukee to breathe, it needed assets that would bring people here. It should not let its ablest people be siphoned off, but give Milwaukeans the credentials and connections to visit peers elsewhere and then to return, as often as not, attracting their peers from other cities.

Scheming like this went on out loud with Pat for perhaps a year before we actually started accomplished anything. Pat was usually ahead of me in deciding what to do, and might have done much the same without my part of the scheming. If she hadn't, I certainly would, though I would probably have taken different courses.

I started asking publishers to send me books on consignment, and we took these and whatever else we could round up from local sources to concerts, rallies, and other events, and set up tables to sell them. One event that typified some of the comedy was at a rally for Puerto Rican nationalists. After singing chorus after chorus of "Yanqui, go home," I was at least one Yanqui who'd like them to stop caterwauling so I could do just that. On another occasion I set out books at a Speed Press booth where Ed and I demonstrated how paper could be recycled. One of my own early books didn't seem to stand a chance of selling, so I pulped it and made sheets of new paper out of it. I also threw a dollar bill into the mash. This actually generated sales for a few copies of the title I pulped, perhaps so the purchasers could tell their friends about the lunatics who recycled their own books - after throwing money into them. Despite the symbolism in this incident, we could at times sell over a hundred publications in a couple hours with no other external apparatus than my VW Hatchback, two card tables, two folding chairs and a couple bucks in our pockets to start making change.

How to Grow an Arts Center from a Book Rack
Without a Cent in your Pocket or a Grant or Patron in Sight

Our first move into the Water Street Arts Center started on a tiny scale. Pat made arrangements with John Kishline to set up a rack of books that could be sold before or after plays at Theater X. Some money usually appeared in a can on an honor system, even if no one was tending the shelf. This first steps went remarkably well.

The next step was a big leap. It took considerable scheming, but the scheming was simply more talk about how to create bookstores, coffee houses, lending libraries, and so on. Perhaps fortified by the scheming and by the relative success of the book rack, Pat discussed setting up a bookstore in the building with the Theater X company. The essential deal we finally came to was that we'd watch the building when the company wasn't around, and maybe do some janitorial tasks. The latter weren't clearly specified and caused friction in the future. The need for a building-sitter was real enough, however. The building was large and well suited for an arts center - perhaps more so than a theater. It was not in good repair, and was conditionally condemned by the city in anticipation of an expansion of the freeway that made a tight, elevated curve around one side of it. When not performing or rehearsing, the company didn't have much to do in it, and when they were on tour, they left it untended for considerably stretches of time. This virtually invited squatters, left the possibility of fines from the city for such things as not shoveling snow from the sidewalk, and left the recessed south entrance open for vagrants to sleep in. Legend had it that one had frozen there, and nobody wanted that to happen again.

In the earliest days, with just two members, we weren't sure which of our schemes we were going to try or how we were going to accomplish any of them. Clearly, one of my main functions as Vice President was not to attend committee meetings or make speeches, but to get more books on consignment from publishers around the country. Since this was a period of trust and something like euphoria among alternative publishers, I was able to make a lot of deals this way. Some lead to other things, such as publishers hiring me to print their books. I believe this is how I first met David Wilk, who became a crucial figure in later phases of the organization's development

Marc Haupert had tried to set up a conventional bookstore in a building that primarily housed head shops, bead stores, and outlets for other paraphernalia fashionable at the time. It was also the same building which housed the Merganthaler compositor I had worked on briefly. I imagine Pat had Marc in mind when she made the initial arrangements with Theater X. He seemed reluctant to join us at first, but that didn't last too long. With the stock from his store, we had a fair number of trade books to go along with those I'd gotten on consignment from alternative presses. We also had the third officer in the organization, since Marc became treasurer as soon as he signed on.

Pat and I had named the gallery before we made the deal with Theater X or had any definite plans other than those worked out with our scheming pens. I had made jokes about art being a terminal illness, and this naturally lead into the name Terminal Arts for the gallery. Syncronicitously, the Theater X building had once housed a small factory for making model trains, and once we got the name up, we had people calling to see if we were back in the model railroad business. Since all sorts of people associated the X in the theater's name with pornography, they also got people looking for things the theater didn't offer. Those who were disappointed by the lake of pornographic films may have missed something they could have bragged about later. Willem DaFoe, who would later go on to play roles ranging from Jesus Christ to T.S. Eliot, got his start in the Theater X company. People who didn't check out our venture may have missed out on things more important than celebrity.

Running a gallery that people would take seriously posed its own set of problems. Our solution was to arrange with the Chairman of the U.W.M. Art Department to offer a class in gallery management. This would be open to two students per semester. They were prohibited from showing work by their friends, had to get at least two reviews in mainstream newspapers or magazines, and observe other requirements and restrictions. The students we got were Susan Kurth, who later became my partner for the rest of the decade, and Sue Marcinkus, who took the job much more seriously than we expected, doing more work than her position required long after the course was completed, and buttressing the organization during some of its low points in morale.

With an actual staff or membership about to join us, we set up virtually all of the initial rules we would have for running the organization. I think Pat's stipulation was that everyone who worked in the organization would automatically become part of the board of directors. This anti-elitist move was certainly congenial to me. My contribution to the rules was that we would never resort to voting, no matter how difficult an issue might become or how much this could slow things down. All decisions had to be arrived at by total consensus. This meant that whenever there were disagreements they had to be resolved by tradeoffs. If A decided to concede point 57, he or she would have to get some concession from B in return, even if that meant that B might have to back off from a harder line at some later date. This eliminated the sweepstakes nature that can come with voting. There were never any complete winners or losers, and at least in theory no reason for anyone to feel that their ideas had been completely pushed aside because they were in a minority. It also meant that everyone knew the precise cost of each decision made. Later on, we added a third rule that probably eliminated many squabbles, as well as helping members reach consensus more quickly: at each meeting no one had access to intoxicants until all business was concluded.

As the organization grew, we made provision for autonomous zones, where individuals and groups set up their own programs and ran them as they saw fit without any meddling from the board of directors. This became particularly important in such instances as providing meeting space for organizations such as the Feminist Writers' Guild, which had its own internal organizational structure, and a policy of keeping males out of their decision making processes and preserving their privacy.

Functions proliferated quickly, though some were transient. We had a fair number of concerts and showings of alternative films, for instance, though in this phase not as part of any coherent program or plan.

Readings sometimes seemed as much laboratories as events where people could come to hear poetry. Although we did some standard format readings, we tried a number of ways of making them more like hybrid coffee house environments. Given the resources available to us, we couldn't set up a full-time coffee shop, but we did have coffee and tea and, most important, an open discussion period at readings. This seemed to have some advantages, but not enough to continue with the simple combination of reading, coffee, and an hour or two of discussion. My sense of the coffee house environment in Lower Manhattan was that coffee was simply a common denominator for a place where people who knew each other and were actively proselytizing other participants to exchange ideas. Exchanging ideas in this instance was centered on reading poems and letting the conversations and other interactions spread out from them. Milwaukee had its share of standard coffee houses. In those that featured folk music, the songs might at times hold the audiences' attention, but they tended more to provide a background for conversation. Poetry should not become the equivalent of folksy Muzak. Other coffee shops had simply been places for conversation without any kind of regular background. Occasional readings at these, particularly at the Avant Garde on Prospect, worked extremely well, but primarily because the readings were relatively rare and the poets who got attention got it because of some mythology or aura outside poetry. That also seemed something to move away from. Some taverns had poets among their clientele - including some of our members - but as much as they provided a place to socialize, they didn't advance the poetry scene. The most they seemed to do was solidify cliques. Afternoon readings with longer discussion periods seemed to work best, but even these didn't offer the range I wanted to see. Perhaps ironically, the most successful thing at at least one of the evening readings was Pat's coffee. In these days before the wide dissemination of designer blends, she could put out an array of condiments such as ginger and cinnamon that attracted attention.

Clearly, the thing we needed was a scene, a milieu outside of dogmatic movements, where people maintained continuous and productive interrelations. There were plenty of little cliques functioning in the city, and we didn't want to simply become another one. And most of these cliques simply imitated schools that functioned on a national level. If we couldn't immediately generate poetry that was not derivative, perhaps we could potentially become a trucial zone between the already existing partisans. Or we could go over their heads to a broader audience of people who, like us, didn't like dogmas. What else could we do? We weren't sure, but we knew that something better should be possible.

Although not the essence of scene creation, we did conduct workshops in hopes of encouraging people to become more proficient at what they wanted to do. Pat and I did several on how to produce books. Mine included discussion of contents as well as the mechanics of design, type setting, layout, printing, and binding. The courses tended to tie in with two tentative programs under our general umbrella: Terminal Arts Press and Multizoa Graphics. Both of these were essentially a revival of what Jim Spencer and I had previously called Peoples Publishing. The goal was to make it possible for people to publish their own work inexpensively, however good or bad it might be, and use that as both an educational situation and as something which gave them a base from which to reach higher in their future work, or at least have a focal point in discussion with their peers. Books had been centers for the exchange of ideas, often ideas unrelated to those in the books, in my conversations with other writers for many years, and my feeling was that the closer the books discussed came to the author, the more meaningful the conversation might become. Several books published under the Terminal Arts imprint involved labor exchanges. In these situations, the author might cover the cost of plates, paper, etc., and pay me for my labor by doing jobs such as collation and proofreading. Multizoa involved interlinked subcontractors. As far as I can remember all Multizoa publications and at least half the Terminal Arts Books included the authors doing some of the low-skill work in producing their own books. Most important as an idea, though it didn't get worked into extensive practice, was making lists of Terminal Arts publications and sending them as broadsides to libraries, individuals, and other bookstores along with our regular correspondence. We hoped that the books published had a better chance of distribution with this form of piggy-back advertising.

Some "courses" and DIY groups took on peculiar methodologies. The one that remains most sublimely aetherial in my memory was a class in bread making. Since we had no ovens, the members simply talked about bread at the center, but went to each others' homes to do the actual baking. Some simply wanted to talk about bread, and didn't bake any.

Our biggest problem throughout this phase of the organization's history was lack of money. We received small donation from the beginning. In the early days, we could not buy more books for the store until we sold some of those from Marc's Bamboo Scroll and those I'd received on consignment. This was a slow process, but money did come in. By August, 1973, we had enough to open a checking account. By that time we had a number of members who were only tangentially involved. Given the youthful and impulsive nature of the group, we set it up so that checks had to be endorsed by two members to be valid. Most of the money we brought in from book sales went right back into stock. This meant we could include books that were not available on a consignment basis. Since we tried to keep the membership eclectic, we divided up ordering lists so that those active in the store got to stock books particularly important to them. Among the books that I kept on the shelves were all the titles available by Lorine Niedecker and Paul Metcalf. These weren't of much interest to the rest of the members, but became fetishes after the organization morphed into Woodland Pattern.

With our stock of poetry books on consignment and those we could order through the publishers or through Book People, we had an inventory comparable to the bookstores around U.M. in Anne Arbor or such classic stores in Chicago as Barbara's. The number of titles available at the time was considerably smaller than it would become in the 1980s, and alternative presses were still a long way from the 4 color process covers and spine lettering that became common a decade later. Although we had put together an inventory as good as any other outlet in the Midwest, with the possible exception of Jim Lowell's mail order Asphodel Books in Cleveland, we wanted to be as inclusive as possible. We also wanted to go beyond the limitations of our own interests and bring the city's readership into the decision making process. To accomplish this, we set up what we called The Terminal Arts Reading Room. Here's how I described it in an article in the January 1974 issue of Margins:

This is a section of the store with a growing library of small press publications. Anyone interested can come in and look through the collection. Hopefully, as the reading room's library expands, hard to get and no longer available publications will be accessible there - as they are not in local libraries. . . Many of the publications in the collection are available and can be ordered through Boox, Inc. This makes the number of items that the store can't stock for space or other reasons available to interested people. Boox, Inc. will also use frequency to help determine what to stock. In this way, Boox, Inc. can determine stock without relying on the biases and special interests of its personnel and can give a wider range of publications a chance to get out in the world than any small store could possibly offer if each book had to be stocked in quantity.
The reading room was not a separate compartment, but a space between the store and gallery with comfortable chairs and a growing library. People who read books from the library tended to buy books from the store even if they didn't order what they read from the library's shelves. If they did order books they'd looked at from the library shelves, they could not feel stung or burned when the books arrived, since they had had the main benefit of a bookstore over a mailorder distributor: the ability to examine and skim through books. If they found all they wanted in the book and decided not to buy it, it still contributed to the range of the city's scene. If it cut down on impulse buying, it also built up trust. Sometimes people who came to the reading room moved chairs into the gallery so they could look at the paintings in a relaxed manner. Going back to the coffee house model, this is where discussions among non-members became most important. They could last all afternoon, and as often as not involved whoever was minding the store for at least parts of the conversation. Decades later manufacturing would call a similar process "lean delivery." It may have been the wisest innovation the store offered, and its loss may have been the biggest after the organization's initial period ended. In addition to publishers who had sent books on consignment, I sent requests for single copies from many others for the reading room. I also included books that were sent to Margins but were not reviewed. Tom didn't have the money to return these to the publishers, so I gave them a consolation prize by making them available through the reading room. The ratio of books in stock to books published has not increased over the years, though the number of publications has grown exponentially since the early 1970s. With the adjunct of the reading room, I don't think any of the fabled stores on the coasts made more books any more easily available or did so with less bias.

End of Phase One

If you propose starting an organization like this, many people will rush to tell you that it is impossible. After you've proved that it isn't, as we most emphatically did, they will reel off endless lists of what won't work, what will go wrong, and reasons why it will fail. Most of these things did indeed happen. Skimming across the main ones: most of the work was done by a small number of overburdened people while others goofed off or struck poses; the members did indeed get into squabbles and/or calamitous amorous affairs with each other and with people from related groups [this was the early 70s!]; without having any money to pay anyone, some members didn't take the organization seriously, there were periods when everyone was discouraged, and during such periods the place went for days without opening its doors; we did have ego battles among members which sometimes harmed efficiency; books did get stolen, even by members of Theater X and our own group. Of other items on the imaginary list, I sincerely doubt that the organization was ever infiltrated by the FBI or any other hostile entity. Although one tangential member committed suicide and several active participants were raped while hitchhiking, none of this had anything to do with the organization, and I don't see any evidence of anyone coming out of it worse for any reasons directly related to the organization itself.

This phase came to an end in early 1975 because Pat had personal problems that did involve another member, and I was too tied up in other things to keep it going at the level it had been. If the list of potential problems includes the organization being held together by one member's chutzpah and personal charisma, and another member's abilities to supply a pool of endless new ideas, Pat's exit and my inaction proved how much this was true, at least temporarily. But the most important things to note here are that the organization would have had to change no mater who did what, and change did happen. Without the base to build on, nothing would have evolved from it. The course of the organization's evolution is the subject for further entries in this Big Bridge series. Suffice it to say that none of them would have been possible without this opening phase.

Looking back on it, Pat has consistently claimed that her ignorance of bookkeeping and lack of business sense were major faults in the organization. This may give her some sense of closure, though she has gone on to do things more suited to her personality and has no reason to look at the end of her presidency with any regrets either as to her abilities or what she did afterwards. The organization went through a creative phase in the early 80s, but even that pales in comparison to the inventiveness of the opening moves. Many of these early attempts made more business sense than things done later with financial backing. If they didn't completely work, it's important to realize that everything the early organization did was done in a period of about two years. Even outside the arts, very few businesses or organizations establish much in such a short period. And those almost invariably have such luxuries as funding and various support and rescue structures.

As to Pat's supposed inabilities as a bookkeeper, the following passage from the above cited issue of Margins should give some sense of how false that notion is:

Pat Wagner has been very good about paying on consignment orders - in a couple cases she's paid so promptly (and even sent money toward future consignment orders) that she seems to have confused a couple small publishers - if you're not a small publisher, you probably don't know what a mindbendingly odd thing prompt consignment payment is: it's unheard of.

If you see efficiency as a Scrooge-like hording of pennies, Pat was not a model bookkeeper. But no one since has shown as much integrity and business acumen as she did. I might have been able to get books on consignment in the first place, but Pat's payments kept them coming in.

If one of the items on the list of reasons for failure is that we were all a bunch of ignorant, inexperienced, and presumptuous kids, the answer to that is you're damned right we were. And we made the best of it. Would you rather have a bunch of 20-somethings meekly go along with whatever the status quo happens to be? I'd like to see more ignorant, inexperienced, and presumptuous kids take the resources available at the beginning of the 21st Century and do similar things with them. Our legacy lives on in Woodland Pattern, and even if Pat, Marc and I are no longer involved in it, what we started has continued, for better and for worse, for over thirty years.

If you're in your twenties, don't worry about what you can't do. You can't precisely duplicate what we did - the world's a different place. But that same world still holds all sorts of untapped resources. You can tap them as easily as we did if you don't listen to people telling you how impossible everything meaningful is or how unimportant you are in the grand scheme of things.

I published over 200 books while living in Milwaukee, starting by finding jobs as a printer. I co-founded an arts center whose offspring is still there. Both of these I did without any money or resources other than those provided by myself, my family, and the people I was able to work with. These are not trivial resources, but I don't doubt that many young people can find similar ones today. Without asking anyone's permission, without checking to see if I was following the latest dance step, without even wanting any kind of official sanction or support, the city gave us what we needed. A city is a place where you can meet people to work with. If you live in a city, you've got a wealth of materials, abilities, opportunities waiting for you. You've probably got all sorts of people around you who could work with you. If you live in a city, you have wealth beyond measure. All you have to do is figure out how to use it.

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Recent photo of Pat Wagner
to make up for the 1973 newspaper shot at the top of the page.