Downtown Made Me
The recent publication of the anthology Up Is Up, But So Is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992 (NYU Press) has inspired this reminiscence.
Over the years I’ve published fiction and other short prose pieces (which some choose to call prose poems) in many literary magazines, most with pretty small circulations. Anthologies have exposed my work to wider and quite different audiences. In The Big Book of New American Humor I shared pages with Woody Allen, Seinfeld, Peter DeVries, Garrison Keillor and Philip Roth, among others, a fact that led me to proclaim that I was the only writer in the book I had never heard of. Poetry 180, Billy Collins’ website and anthology originally aimed at exposing high school students to contemporary American poets, surely garnered me my largest audience yet. My entry in Guys Write for Guys Read, Jon Scieszka’s adolescent boys’ literacy project, surely garnered me my youngest audience.
This new anthology represents my work within the sociocultural context in which it came to maturity, the downtown scene of the 1980s. A large, sprawling compendium of texts and documents, Up Is Up, But So Is Down is a scrapbook of an era. The interesting thing about that time in that place is that while there were surely many individual “scenes,” one could also truly speak in terms of an overarching downtown scene.
Of course, downtown New York was always the hotbed of Bohemianism and experimentation. By the time of my downtown, however, Greenwich Village no longer had any real significance in the equation. I’d say that the downtown scene I worked within was born largely of the convergence of the sixties East Village counter-culture and the genre-crossing SoHo scene of the seventies (even if that was really just a heating up of things that had started brewing in the sixties). While collaborations among artists, writers and musicians had a long history in New York, in my downtown the distinctions between who was what had blurred. My downtown was a stew.
I moved to the East Village from Brooklyn in 1979. I had found the perfect apartment to be a downtown writer in. It was a dark, gloomy first-floor tenement apartment on East 10th Street, just west of Tomkins Square Park, on the block with the Russian Baths, a Ukrainian Church, and the Boys Club, not to mention Carlo Pittore’s Galleria dell’Occhio, the mail artist’s window gallery. My apartment had a bathtub in the kitchen, a tiny water closet, crumbling walls and a ceiling that once ended up on my floor. At least I had my own toilet. Some buildings still had shared toilets down the hall.
By this time I had been publishing my work in literary magazines for a couple of years and was also editor of my own magazine, Zone. I had moved to the East Village because all sorts of interesting things were happening there, and at age 23 I needed to be in the thick of it. Over the next eight years, which I’ll nostalgically declare the chronological heart of the downtown scene, things got out of control in all the best ways. New magazines and performance venues seemed to be launched every week. Writers and painters formed rock bands. Painters made performance pieces, writers made performance pieces, writers, painters and musicians collaborated on performance pieces. I started performing.
My performance career was not really anything I had planned. It grew out of what was supposed to be a reading at The Performing Garage. I had met Liz LeCompte, Spalding Gray and The Wooster Group when I had documented their theater piece “Point Judith” for Zone. I think it must have been 1980 when they decided to do a reading series in the space and invited me to appear. I always loved doing readings, connecting with a live audience, and I had also become really interested in much of the text-based performance work that was happening at the time. Something clicked. Performing Garage, I thought; I can’t just sit there and read from the page. So I turned my texts into performance pieces. It worked, I was hooked, and for the rest of the decade I was a performer as well as a writer.
Some of the performance work I did was solo, but much was in collaboration with musicians. In 1981 I was introduced to the improvising multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp by a mutual friend. I was interested in working with music in my performance and Elliott was interested in working with text. We got together, worked up a bunch of pieces based on some of my texts, decided we were on to something and called it Sonorexia, because we wanted a name that sounded like a disease. Except it wasn’t a disease. The neologism means appetite for sound.
Sonorexia performed regularly at many of the major East Village and SoHo performance venues of the time, like 8BC, Darinka and Inroads, but we also did one-shots at the Mudd Club (on a bill with poet Bob Holman as “Panic DJ”) and CBGB (where Richard Hell slept on a table during our show). Gary Ray Bugarcic’s Darinka, on East 1st Street, was like a second home to me. I did countless performances there and also curated a monthly fiction reading series. Darinka doesn’t get the recognition it deserves in histories of the scene.
During that time I was working nights as a legal proofreader, a job that attracted many writers, dancers and actors. One of my favorite coworkers, Jim Moisan, was the creator of the comic book hero “Bill Dupp, SoHo Detective.” Keyboardist and songwriter Lee Feldman was another proofreader, and we became close collaborators, writing songs together as well as performing monologues with live soundtracks that we called “Movies for the Ears.”
During the day, those days, you could stumble into any of a number of East Village eateries and join a table of writers or musicians to ruminate on life and art and more mundane matters over a cup of Joe. Of course, when you’re in your twenties hanging out is a major occupation. A place called White Wave on Second Avenue was a favorite late breakfast spot of downtown musicians who straddled the genres of free improv, no wave and jazz. The more jazz-oriented of the bunch, like Phillip Johnston, Joel Forrester and Wayne Horvitz later worked with me on my Thelonious Monk project. From breakfast I usually went straight to a lunch engagement, then back home to do a little writing, then to my job, then to an after-midnight dinner at places like Baltyk, a Polish restaurant with a killer white borscht, or perhaps 103 Second Avenue. Then I’d go home, watch the news with Linda Ellerbee, get a little sleep, and roll back out to breakfast and the invigorating sustenance of chat.
I think the most prominent view of downtown writing of those years, and one that the anthology probably supports, is that it was dominated by raw, gritty work that was heavy on sex and violence of all flavors. Indeed, many of the writers fit into a gestalt that was heavily inspired by Genet, Burroughs, Hubert Selby, Henry Miller, and of course Rimbaud. But some of us were more interested in the prose piece (or more elementally the sentence) as object, mining territory that was much more informed by European avant garde traditions, Gertrude Stein, and older or near-contemporary American writers like Harry Mathews, Russell Edson and Walter Abish. Writers like Holly Anderson, Roberta Allen and the wacky dada minimalist Mike Topp are among those I feel a literary affinity with, but the great thing about that period was that regardless of approach we were, for the most part, a big extended family, often sharing readings at places like ABC No Rio and more often the pages of magazines like Between C & D and Redtape.
I mention those two magazines not only because they were the most quintessentially East Village or Alphabet City of the bunch, but because they nurtured that kind of extended family mode I’m talking about. I don’t think it would be hyperbole to call Between C & D a legendary magazine. It was the baby of writers Joel Rose and Catherine Texier, and was published out of their apartment on 7th street between, you guessed it, C & D. The magazine played ironically upon the Alphabet City location with a drug culture meets technology design aesthetic. The magazine was printed on fanfold paper on Epson dot-matrix printers, and slipped into ziploc bags. They had a bunch of these printers in the apartment, donated by Epson after someone at the company had read about the magazine. The din of printers churning out copies was the soundtrack to Joel & Catherine’s life. The great thing about the two of them, and the magazine, was the trust and respect they had for their writers. A number of us were regulars, appearing in multiple issues, and lots of different styles and approaches were represented. Among this crew were Patrick McGrath, whose work in Between C & D paved the way for his very successful later career, Dennis Cooper, Lynne Tillman, and Darius James, arguably the most significant African-American voice in downtown writing of that era. With Between C & D it was rarely an issue of waiting for acceptance or rejection, it was just an issue of which issue your piece was going to be in. For certain of us, at least, Joel and Catherine had implicit trust. If we thought a piece of ours was good enough for them to publish that was good enough for them. Michael Carter of Redtape worked in much the same way, if on a more erratic schedule. What a luxury that was for a writer.
A looming figure of the downtown literary scene those days, the booster par excellence, was poet and bookstore guy Ron Kolm. I first met Ron when people started telling me about a guy at a SoHo bookstore who would buttonhole customers and insist that they buy my book Bagatelles. Ron was responsible for my appearance in a number of magazines and anthologies, some of which he published himself and some for which he acted as a sort of agent without portfolio. Ron is a pack rat and his extensive archive formed the nucleus of the Downtown Collection at NYU’s Fales Library, which in turn inspired the compilation of Up Is Up, But So Is Down.
My other significant publishing associations of the time included those with Benzene magazine and Purgatory Pie Press. I had met Allan Bealy and Sheila Keenan of Benzene in 1980, just before they published their first issue. It was at a party I threw with my Zone co-editor Dennis DeForge at a Bowery Loft where we had hoped to open a gallery and performance space. The Zone Gallery never happened, but a fruitful association and lasting friendships grew out of that party. My work appeared regularly in Benzene, and the press published my short prose collection Condensed Book in 1986. Benzene had a more SoHo/Tribeca aesthetic than an East Village one. Its multimedia focus was served well by its large tabloid format. It was one of the major publications documenting the era, and it had an important influence on the later direction of Zone magazine. Dikko Faust and Esther K. Smith of Purgatory Pie Press are the edgiest letterpress printer/publishers I know, and they’ve done three books of mine, two of them hybrid verbo-visual works, all out of print.
I lived in the East Village from 1979 to 1987. This was my most productive period as a writer, but I was, after all, in my twenties. Without a doubt the work I produced was greatly influenced by the hothouse nature of that time and place. Graham Greene wrote a novel titled England Made Me. Well, downtown made me. The East Village went through a lot of changes in those years. When I first moved to 10th Street there were abandoned buildings used by junkies as shooting galleries. A few years later Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery had opened on the block, but the East Village art gallery scene was a short-lived phenomenon. By the time I left in ‘87 real estate prices had skyrocketed. I used to say that when I moved into the neighborhood people came in limos to buy dope, then they came in limos to buy art, and finally they came in limos to buy apartments. The Tomkins Square riots happened the year after I left, and for me that conveniently marks the end of an era. But maybe that’s just because I was gone.
I’ve left out a lot of people, venues and magazines, but I’ve gone on too long already.
Village Voice Review of Up is Up
Cynthia Carr on the scene in The Times
Elliott Sharp and I will be performing together as Sonorexia for the first time in over 20 years on January 4, at the Bowery Poetry Club, as part of an event celebrating Up Is Up, But So Is Down. Don't worry, I'll remind you in December.