Diachronic<>Synchronic Editorial Maneuvers During the Run of VORT Magazine
Ken Bolton: VORT came into my life in the mid 70s. I remember I ordered the Sorrentino/Phelps issue, importing it to Sydney, Australia, from Sand Dollar or Serendipity Books-forerunners, I think, of Small Press Distribution in California. I then ordered some earlier issues-the Ted Berrigan/Anselm Hollo number, for instance, maybe Antin & Rothenberg & MacLow & Schwerner. I might have had Ken Irby & David Bromige, too.
For a young writer they were great to receive: an education in styles of critical response & the poetics current to the time-tho the word "poetics" wasn't used as the confident substantive it has since become-& a very thorough introduction to important writers not too far into their creative lives. Such a magazine must have been a lot of work editorially-as opposed to the job of simply soliciting & selecting for one more poetry magazine. What were the circumstances that gave rise to VORT? It seemed then to be unique: what gave rise to it?
Barry Alpert: Ken, VORT first came to mind in 1969 while I was working on my doctoral dissertation for Donald Davie at Stanford on Ezra Pound's involvements with and theories about literary magazines and presses. Instead of continuing to analyze the interplay between Pound and a stream of editors, I wanted to conclude the thesis by exemplifying what I had learned. Davie anticipated how such a project would delay the completion of my degree, and in retrospect I'm glad he encouraged me to wait before starting my own editorial project. In fact, he recommended me to Ed Dorn and contributed a piece on Dorn to the first issue. The idea of focusing on two writers per issue arose out of my analysis of the relationship between Pound and Wyndham Lewis in editing BLAST, further intensified by my chance acquisition that year of both issues of the original magazine.
Since age 16, when I discovered the Pataphysical issue of Evergreen Review, I've enjoyed reading around in magazines. Perhaps most influential on me during the period from 1969 to 1972 when the idea for VORT was germinating were the special issues of the British magazine Agenda. I admired Robert Creeley's strong editing of the Black Mountain Review. John Taggart's Maps had its impact, particularly the Charles Olson issue, and later the ones devoted to Robert Duncan and Louis Zukofsky. Cid Corman's Origin was important for me as well. Being an interviewer had never been a personal ambition of mine, but I had regularly read interviews in Rolling Stone magazine for years and their collective impact on my "style" dwarfs whatever I absorbed from a few Paris Review interviews
KB: So your editorial vision took you where it did. It is great that the interviews weren't lost in larger, academic magazines but arrived with that additional weight of context & variety of perspectives. My first thought was that the enterprise seemed rather selfless, too, given that you were a young writer yourself, I think, & needing to be published.
Barry Alpert: When the idea for VORT came to mind I wasn't in the habit of thinking of myself as a young "creative writer", mainly because my total output at the time consisted of two lines conceived of while lying on a beach in Northern California and written in my copy of LeRoi Jones' Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. As I began interviewing writers for VORT, I would on occasion extrapolate from a practice uncovered during that process. A good example would be Tom Raworth's explanation of how he wrote 'Claudette Colbert by Billy Wilder'. I was rather pleased when my 'Three via Nicholas Ray' was accepted for publication both by the editors of the film magazine Take One and by Allan Kornblum (now editor of Coffehouse Press). But my overarching ambition was editorial, and I would have got more academic credit if I published my interviews in refereed journals. But I wanted to show what I could do as the editor of my own magazine. The selfless aspect was probably true, because I always cut myself back in favour of allowing the interviewee to reveal himself. The impact of John Cage, starting in 1973, must have contributed to my desire for egolessness, and certainly the last place where I'd want to frontally exhibit my ego would be in the interviews for VORT.
My criticism was getting published in other magazines while I was editing VORT, and other than the interviews, I kept my essays for VORT brief.
KB: You were absolutely right, I think, that VORT demonstrated editorial initiative & vision. If you had run your interviews in academic magazines-well, they'd have been read differently, disseminated differently, even supposing they had all been run. I mean, some of your choices would have been anathema to academia back then, surely. And there would not have been the plurality voices & overlap of views, well contradiction of views, all centred on single authors.
Issue #1 featured Ed Dorn & Tom Raworth. Dorn was a Black Mountain affiliate & had spent some time in England, at Essex University, I think, with Tom Clark & Donald Davie? Raworth was English but had connections with the US writers-New York & Bolinas I think. Why did you start with them?
BA: I witnessed a dazzling reading of Gunslinger by Ed Dorn in Berkeley during the late sixties around the time I read Donald Davie's essay on Olson & Dorn. When I explained my editorial angle to Ed, he suggested a pairing with Tom Raworth. There was enough evidence of inter-action between the two for me to be convinced. Then, too, Raworth was an Anglo-Irish writer and an interview with him would be a publication within the field of Modern British Poetry, a specialty area I had recently claimed. Finally, Tom was going to be doing a reading tour of the states and I would be able to interview him after the performance I was able to offer him. Both Ed and Tom urged me to focus on Ted Berrigan & Anselm Hollo in the second issue of VORT, and with entree and geographical proximity at hand I decided to go ahead with that project. In fact the first two issues were sent out at the same time and had a kind of combined effect. The response from outside the isolated midwest college town where I worked was much more positive & encouraging than I expected.
KB: Does the choice of authors to build the issues around seem to you to have a trajectory, or to register shifts in your interest? Numbers two & three have a Bolinas /New York locus, to me. And issues 6,7 & 8 (Sorrentino/Phelps, Antin/Rothenberg, MacLow/Schwerner) seem to deal with 'the experimental' - people evidently pushing at form & genre.
BA: The choice of authors featured in each issue depended on a combination of factors. Certain figures stimulated me from my perspective as a literary critic. Other writers combined well with the figure of primary interest to me. Whether a context of standing interest for me (Black Mountain, Deep Image, New York School, & . . .) would be further illuminated. Finally, who I could "get to" (interview in person on audiotape), and when.
Issues appeared when I felt I had gathered the best material available at the particular time and did not intentionally reflect either a trajectory or shift of interest. #1 & 2 hit the stands at the same time, #3 appeared in its own right (as did #4), while #5-8 were shepherded through production during the same period. #9 might look as if it were linked to #4, but most of my work on it occurred a few years later, and it surfaced as an independent entity.
KB: You ended with work still to come around Ashbery, Cage, Hirschman & Meltzer, & Something Else Press alumni. Did much of this surface later elsewhere?
BA: Whatever material I had gathered for those volumes was incinerated when an insane arsonist threw a molotov cocktail and set my place on fire. None of the issues had reached the point at which I felt ready to publish. I detect traces of some of the material within the collections of a few rare book libraries, and I believe some critics published their essays on featured authors in other contexts. Being burned over 36% of my body and then discovering that my whole archive had been destroyed effectively killed any interest which may have remained for me in continuing VORT.
KB: That's terrible. What a precipitate way for a magazine to end. Were you thinking, before the fire, of winding up the operation at all? I know your editorial intimated a possible move to video, or to a magazine more like Artforum.
BA: I would say that I was interested in shedding the critical writing about the featured writers and shifting to an all-interview format. If I could find a focus for each subsequent issue which would result in considerably more than two interviews between the covers, that would be even better. The reference to video reflects the impact on me of Avalanche magazine, in conjunction with the tapes I had been able to witness by conceptual and post-conceptual artists. It had become increasingly difficult for me to face the interview transcription process, and presenting a videotape of each interview seemed appealing (at the time I was naive about the aggravating video editing process which may have been necessary). While I could never expect to equal the range of coverage exhibited by Artforum, I was ambitious to interview visual artists whose verbal language might intrigue me. I never consciously thought of ending VORT, but accidentally became unable to continue the editing process.
KB: The critical language of the Minimalists & Conceptualists at that time had a pleasing rigour to it, I remember. Literary discussion was less incisive, or maybe more acculturated: you needed to know more, to have been around longer to really get it. (Or maybe the discursive has a greater purchase on the non-verbal than it has on verbal propositions?) But I guess you moved in that direction - the conceptual/minimalist - when you dealt with Antin and MacLow?
BA: I guess rigour might have been one of the qualities which attracted me to Minimalism and Conceptualism, but its cutting force as experienced during my first exposure (to the work of the first generation of San Francisco conceptual artists) remains with me to this day. The Peoples' Park Poetry Reading benefit which I attended in 1969 initially attracted me because of the literary figures who were to read, but an unannounced performance by the conceptual artist Paul Cotton wiped out any retrospective interest in retrieving what texts were articulated aloud by those scheduled and ruled out studying the event from a literary/political perspective. Nor did the masters of ceremony, despite being garbed as the Romantic Bard Robert Duncan and the British Schoolmarm Denise Levertov, have any idea how to handle Cotton, fully-enclosed in a mimetic pink costume, as he hopped up the stairs to the stage loudly repeating only, "I'm the Peoples' Prick!" In fact, only a number of years later when I met the scholar of California performance art, Moira Roth, and Paul Cotton himself, did I learn that what I had witnessed was one of the major conceptual performances of that generation of artists.
While a traditional vanguard stemming from Pound and Williams through Olson might have been easier for me to perceive in writers and then document in VORT, I did encounter a number of exemplifications of the Duchamp/Stein/Cage line during the same period and thus didn't really move in that direction when I featured Antin & MacLow. I'd describe my overall editorial direction as circling around circles. In the case of Antin and MacLow, at that time I was more concerned with strengthening their literary reputations by publishing positive pieces on them by well-respected literary critics.
KB: I wonder now if the special attention given these authors-which seems to me to constitute with each issue frozen moments, time capsules capturing 'moments' in particular careers-captured them at odd, or telling stages of their careers? Raworth, for example, was connected to the US scene, but had he much attention in the US at that stage? In fact, would this amount of attention have somehow claimed him from the British? Had they been attending to him for long themselves?
BA: Donald Davie's sorting out of British poetry since 1945 would have been my first resource in the late sixties and early seventies, and although he wasn't a fan of Tom Raworth's activity, he certainly thought Raworth was significant enough to merit arguing against. I remember Davie challenging me in person, "Isn't it just kitsch?" Together with David Harsent's attack on similar grounds in Agenda, here was a chance for me to defend Tom against representatives of a post-Poundian line who couldn't see Raworth's innovative moves and his extrapolations from other vanguard exemplars stressing formal innovation over tradition. The fact that Tom had edited his own literary magazine Outburst starting in 1961 was a particular attraction for me, and I was intrigued by many of the figures he included. Then there were his books published by Goliard, Trigram, and Fulcrum which seemed to indicate that here was a significant figure within contemporary British writing who hadn't received attention from American literary critics. My path was clear, even as I gradually became aware of the numerous American poets who admired his work (and probably made up a good percentage of the audience for the first issue of VORT). I wouldn't say I "captured" Tom Raworth at an especially telling point in his career (comparable to Dorn amidst Gunslinger or Antin at a relatively early point with his talk poems), but my interview was the first lengthy critical document having to do with his work. Had I known of Eric Mottram at that time, I imagine he might have been willing to write a sympathetic essay on Raworth for VORT from his London perspective.
KB: Hmm, you didn't go back to the British again. But I guess there is always the anxiety when dealing with other scenes - that you don't possess enough of the facts to act with much certainty?
BA: Actually, one of the reasons I was agreeable to interviewing Anselm Hollo was that, at the time, he had spent twice as long in a British literary context as in an American one. On the basis of his 1957-1967 residency in England, I could claim he was (in part) a British poet and I did teach his work in my courses on Modern British Poetry. It was quite difficult for me to sort out post-Movement poetry in Great Britain, but I kept working at it. Since I never conceived of doing fieldwork over there, I followed out leads from descriptions in rare book catalogues, read what literary criticism in the field I could find, and benefitted from conversations with or observation of exemplars residing in or passing thru the US (this included Peter Whigham, Thom Gunn, Nat Tarn, John Matthias, and Dick Miller, as well as Raworth, Hollo, and Davie). I would have been happy to interview J.H. Prynne, Charles Tomlinson, Lee Harwood, and others for VORT, but the opportunity to meet with them in person in the US never came into view.
KB: What was Berrigan up to at this time? Was your sense of it that he was still on a roll? To me his later career doesn't live up to the excitement, well, the exemplary innovation, really-of 'The Sonnets', 'Tambourine Life', 'Bean Spasms'. There are later poems I love, certainly. How was Ted seen at just that time, how did it strike you that he saw things panning out?
BA: I believe "Tambourine Life", "Bean Spasms", and "The Sonnets" had all been published and were in the process of being digested by others, but the critical position that they represented Berrigan's best work had not been established. Poems and collaborations were being written, books and magazines were being organized, but I can't say I remember any towering project in the works during the period in which I was studying Ted Berrigan. One couldn't help but be impressed by the quantity and quality of younger writers who benefitted from the presence of Ed Dorn, Tom Raworth, and Ted Berrigan in Chicago. So it may be that my fieldwork consisted, in part, of observing Berrigan's social skills and ability as a teacher, establishing a branch of the so-called New York School of Poetry in a geographical area not previously known for it and in which it continues to thrive even now.
KB: I note this was an issue consisting of just the two interviews, with Berrigan & Anselm Hollo. Was it not possible to get for these two the critical context you normally sought & provided?
BA: Since VORT hadn't surfaced in public yet (remember that the Dorn/Raworth and Berrigan/Hollo issues appeared at exactly the same time), my critical resources were limited. I never knew Donald Davie's attitude towards Anselm Hollo, but he must have had a viewing of Berrigan at the University of Essex because he challenged my editorial decision by declaring, "Ted Berrigan is the worst reader in North America!" Eric Mottram might have written about Hollo and/or Berrigan, but I didn't know of him at that point. When I asked Anselm and Ted for a list of possible contributors of critical prose, I received some suggestions, but no one I contacted was able to send me a finished piece. The interviews struck me as publishable, and since each writer talks about the other, I decided there was enough critical coherence for them to appear together as is. Somehow I assumed that most readers would acquire the Dorn/Raworth issue as well, and read them together. Twenty five years later, within the archives of the POETICS listserv, I note a request for suggestions of critical essays to read about Ted Berrigan--the poster having found very little.
KB: Oh, yeah - I'd forgotten those issues appeared together. Sorrentino's career was certainly on a roll at the time of your interview with him. And he has continued to produce terrific stuff in an aesthetic trajectory or vein already his at the time. But the money and publicity around his work must have subsided from that point on (I surmise), as it became clear his work was not going to be taken up by the many. He'd have been shocked if it had, but maybe around that time he was preparing to be shocked? I'm a fan and I'm asking these questions as a matter of information, so tell me if I'm wrong in my surmising.
Other authors might have been caught in what now seem uncharacteristic times, in careers that, in some cases, subsequently looked quite different from those examined in VORT? True of any of them?
BA: I'm not certain whether I can address what you surmise: that the money & publicity surrounding Gilbert Sorrentino subsided when it became clear he wasn't going to attract the many. Sorrentino's direct experience of the commerce of publishing while an editor at Grove must have made him even more realistic about his own possibilities than if he had only been involved with small presses. The publisher's expectations for Mulligan Stew, for example, remain unknown to me, but I have a hard time believing they thought they had a bestseller. Whatever shock you detect from both of us in the interview was more a 'mock shock' about an apparent revolution in taste which 'must' have been behind an openness to Gilbert Sorrentino's work from publishers who might literally have rejected it in the past.
Perhaps it was simply that different editors had gained power. My overall view is that the "aesthetic trajectory" of both his readership and publishers has been remarkably consistent over the years. I was completely shocked, however, when I learned he was teaching at Stanford. That possibility had never entered my mind, and whatever money & publicity was associated with that faculty position might have advanced his career in a more fitting manner than accidentally reaching a mass market.
KB: I wonder if other authors you interviewed might have been caught in what now seem uncharacteristic times, in careers that, in some cases, subsequently looked quite different from those examined in VORT? True of any of them?
BA: No, I don't think I happened to catch any author interviewed in VORT during a completely uncharacteristic period. Perhaps that's one reason why the interviews seem to hold up even now. My main concern was to publish the first major extended interview with a figure in mid-career, and what they did subsequently seems to make a certain kind of sense (or "follow) from what I documented.
KB: The editorial in #5 makes a strongly phrased and broad claim for the magazine's vision or mission statement: the territory will be "the post World War II literary history of the vanguard sensibility. Primarily as manifested in certain overlapping cenacles in New York City, though my lengthy residence in the San Francisco area blurred matters for me until recently."
In issue 1, in a spirited rejection of a negative review of a Tom Raworth book, you speak of VORT's being "founded on Poundian principles". What were those?
BA: At this remove, I can't recall an instance in which Ezra Pound lays out a number of principles for editing literary magazines in a manner comparable to the three principles of Imagism presented by Pound (and F.S. Flint) in 1913 within Harriet Monroe's Poetry magazine. Earlier in this interview I did point to BLAST as the specific source for my focus on two writers per issue, though I wouldn't claim that I was trying to promote a particular "ism" as Pound and Wyndham Lewis were trying to do with Vorticism. However, I did hope that the two featured writers (and those who wrote about them) would articulate aspects of a shared aesthetic. Throughout his literary career, Pound was in contact with the editors of literary magazines, continually arguing for the presentational strategies he would pursue if he were the chief editor. Only in 1927-1928 was Pound able to edit his own magazine, The Exile, and if you compare it to VORT, the main similarity would be the existence of overt editorial statements. My article appearing in an early issue of Paideuma on The Exile, including unpublished letters to his American agent John Price, might make pertinent reading.
KB: I noticed in the editorial note to issue 4 you spoke of authors generationally as "older", "middle-aged" & "younger" (Watten & Coolidge would have been then representatives of the younger writers you dealt with). You also spoke of the difficulty of getting critical work for VORT-the difficulty of getting material on Robert Kelly you remarked specifically-and you talked of the habit of criticism among the vanguard as having dropped (away partly thru the fault of Caterpillar?). Did you sense then that these younger writers were going to be more willing to theorize & write critically?
BA: At the time I assumed that if a potential interviewee had been publishing for at least ten years (the longer the better), enough of a readership had arisen from which several critical responses could likely be elicited. I didn't want anyone to be able to conclude that I was the sole advocate. In retrospect, I'm satisfied with the quantity and quality of the literary criticism I was able to gather for VORT, despite my geographic isolation and relative lack of experience within contemporary literary contexts. Because most of the magazines which published creative work by writers I featured didn't include critical writing about them, there was an absence in the over-all context that I could legitimately attempt to address. I didn't sense then that the "younger generation" of writers would be considerably more likely to write criticism and theory than previous generations, and instead my attention was turning to the visual arts and their accompanying theory and criticism.
My editorial was also responding to unexpected requests from a number of aggressive "younger writers" that I interview them for VORT. I was happy to be able to point to Watten's interview with Coolidge. A bit later I initiated and published interviews with Bernadette Mayer (in The World, edited by Anne Waldman, 1974--Dick Miller helped me with the interviewing process in person) and with Kathy Acker (in Only Paper Today, edited by Victor Coleman, 1975).