2007: A New Year in levy Karma



by Ingrid Swanberg


Since publishing Zen Concrete & Etc. in 1991, I have had the occasion to hear, over and again, the excitement of readers who have found levy on their own through such diverse venues as the Gotham Book Mart, a miniature reprint series out of Sacramento, California, an obscure used book store in Fallon, South Dakota, Light & Dust's d.a.levy homepage . . . Without fail, there is a keenness in the requests for '. . . more information, more books, anything.'  'Is your edition still in print?' (It is.)  'Where else can I find him?'  I point them to the Kirpan Press Random Sightings series, the Light & Dust d.a.levy homepage, the new book, d.a.levy & the Mimeograph Revolution (Bottom Dog Press, 2007), ukanhavyrfuckinciti bak (a landmark collection of levy's work, originally edited and published by rjs and T.L. Kryss in 1967 and recently reprinted by Russell Salamon at its forty-year watermark). 

levy's poetry works a certain magic on his readers.  I think of the handful of Japanese waterflowers I once put into an envelope to levy:  'PLACE ONE OR TWO INA FINGER BOWL — (FILLED WITH WATER) WATCH THE RESULT.'

Ingrid Swanberg
Imbolc, 2008



2007: A New Year in levy Karma

by Karl Young


2007 may mark a turning point in the development of interest in the poetry and related work of d.a.levy. The interest has been there all along, but its quality has changed as the years have passed. The audience has certainly grown broader and more diverse, and seems to have matured. Although levy still attracts rebels, and probably always will, significant portions of his readership have moved away from fascination with the outlaw mystic and conspiracy theories. At present, many of his younger readers are more interested in what they can learn from him as a poet and artist. The three books featured in this section seem an indication of that development. Alan Horvath's Kirpan Editions have always provided a model of scholarship, care, precision, thoroughness, and proportion. These emanate not from the cloisters of academe but from the same literary underground of which levy was part, perhaps suggesting more diveristy in that underground than fans and detractors have credited it. This year's offering, done after many years of quiet and all but unnoticed effort by a near contemporary of levy's, suggests the passing of a torch to new generations. One means of picking up that torch is Russell Salamon's reprint of unkanhavyrfuckinciti bak. Although Salamon is Horvath's elder, it seems that the production of this facsimile edition follows Horvath's example. Since neither publisher would want to make a contest out of their projects, that may not be important in itself, but the combination of the efforts of Horvath and Salamon set an extremely important precedent. Neither is alone or a fluke, and both emphasize sticking closely to the original texts.

d.a.levy and the mimeograph revolution takes a different trajectory. Unlike the other two books, it is a trade edition, produced for a large audience and one that includes many people who may not already be familiar with levy or convinced of his virtues. The only other trade edition worth reading has been Ingrid Swanberg's Zen Concrete & Etc., which still holds its place as the primary selection of levy's poems for the general reader. The new book, however, includes considerably more commentary, interviews, and a greater emphasis on context than Swanberg's selection of poems. In these books the levy mythology and hagiography fade further into the background than they have in the past. Our hope is that levy biography will assume a supportive and illuminative role, instead of a prurient one. This seems to be in the process of coming to pass, and levy's poetry and influence on other poets continues to grow as the cartoonish stereotype of him as a literary James Dean vaporizes.

It seems that 40 years after the original publication of unkanhavyrfuckinciti bak levy's life and work, ironically enough, is finally becoming more important to a wider audience than his death.

Evaluation of levy as a poet careens as widely as ever, but this seems to take on a healthier cast in its greater attention to the poetry and art than to the mythology. Notwithstanding that some commentators see his poetry as better or worse than others, the important thing at this stage is not how good or bad they think his work may be, but that they're talking about the work itself, and seriously trying to evaluate it. If they all agreed with Swanberg's assessment of its lyric depth or my amazement at levy's ability to dredge up seemingly endless inventiveness virtually ex nihilo, that would limit him to our own orientations. That admirers and at times even detractors find new aspects of his work that we've missed during our years of advocacy gives even us a better sense of levy as a complete poet, and, incidentally, a bit of encouragement for our efforts.

What gives me most optimism is the quality of audience response as it grows. Perhaps nothing typifies the virtues of maturing audience response as much as its diversity. The commentary we have assembled here, without any intention of seeking divergence, has shown more breadth than we imagined when we began this project. Joel Lipman, a contemporary of levy's, may provide the best commentary on him yet written. Yet the comments of Dan Waber, some 20 years Lipman's junior, show a similar perceptiveness. It's also important to compare Waber's response to Kitasono Katue in this issue of Big Bridge. About all that levy and Kitasono have had in common in U.S. audience reaction is their neglect and varieties of prejudice held against them. The quality of Waber's response to both show how little stereotypes, prejudices, and the previously formed opinions of others matter to him. There may be some irony for me in presenting passages from a writer of the generation after Waber's, Joshua Gage's Master's Thesis on levy (despite the fact that this is not the first time that levy has entered the ivy halls, as witness Ingrid Swanberg's doctoral dissertation), but Gage doesn't seem to find him as unusual a subject for such a paper as levy might have seemed to the generation between Lipman's and Gage's. And we have the extreme good fortune of being able to present Gage's working notes as a poet along with his academic effort. The difference in tone in the two Gage contributions echoes the stylistic differences between contributors throughout this gathering. Clearly, levy's significance is not something picked up by only one faction or type of personality or the practitioner of one art form, but by a group of people that only seems to grow wider as time passes.

In addition to the way this affirms levy's enduring value, even to those who have their doubts as to his rank in some as yet unformed canon, it also underscores to me a basic quality of levy which many commentators miss: his extreme practicality. For me this begins with my main reason for seeing him as a major poet — he was the most widely inventive young American of the 1960s. Invention, even when it initially seems purely formal, tends to seek applications other than those for which it was originally intended. In my own case, levy not only suggested a number of different literary and artistic forms I followed later, but was also a formative influence on co-founding Milwaukee's Water Street Arts Center and moving it into Woodland Pattern, an organization which still functions, though it has gone through many metamorphoses. jon beacham may write very differently than I, but he may present the most cogent argument for the significance of Cleveland in levy's work: not its local color or history, but the need to understand it in community and audience building — in Cleveland specifically and emphatically, but by implication elsewhere as well. How much Stephen Nelson in Scotland might care about faraway and perhaps alien Cleveland seems imponderable. What is most important is that he is taken by what is unique in levy's visual poetry — that after 40 years, he still finds renewable resources in levy's poetry which he finds nowhere else.

Joel Lipman may have done the most in developing a carefully articulated response to levy's sense of his materials in visual poetry and graphic art, but it should be just as important to realize how much levy's example moved Geoff Cook to take the boldest and most successful human rights action in mail art history, as well as more general activism, through his response to levy.

A contextuallizing advantage of this satellite appearing in this issue of Big Bridge is the presence of work by levy contemporaries other than Swanberg, Kryss, Lipman, and myself in Richard Denner's Berkeley Daze, where you'll find work of the period and memoirs by other contemporaries whose comments appear here, Charles Potts, John Oliver Simon, and Richard Krech.

Swanberg and I began this gathering to celebrate the publication of several good books. They are tangible parts of levy's ongoing legacy. But more important is the ever-widening scope of his audience. We hope we have suggested that in this gathering of papers.

— Karl Young


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