Excerpt from the Introduction
Vivid personal stories of the poets and writers who leaped out of the literary traditions of the 1950s, blending with other artists to create the excitement of a new art mix called multimedia.
Light Years tells the story of a unique group of poets, novelists, playwrights and book people who associated with visual and performing artists at the core of New York’s emerging East Village Scene in a creative renaissance during the 1960s. The memoirs illustrate how these writers took poetry off the page, how they developed the heady amalgam multimedia. Voices and words were thrust into perspectives where the body and the space around it became extensions of poetry; this is what made the Light Years poets different from others of its era: taking skills into the realms of audio and visual experimentation, and exercising freedom to reconstitute academic learning so as to create new arts. In the intervening decades, the people of Light Years, while achieving as professors, translators, editors, novelists, playwrights, actors, and filmmakers, have also received recognition for work in multimedia.
Their chapters intimate how the avant-garde becomes classical and is incorporated into culture, with innovative performances and adventurous objets d’art forming a basis for a mainstream of the future. No other anthology better illuminates how these poets’ words, music and bodies in motion helped transpose American and European consciousness about the possibilities of modern communication.
The Light Years assemblage was at the leading edge of the evolution into process art, conceptual art, and performance art, moving onto stages, art spaces and sites; therefore, it is entitled to be viewed as part of a First Generation of multimedia artists. Each artist’s chapter shows the development of their art in the years before making it into major museums, Documenta and high-visibility art expositions and publication by art presses, international media and literary presses. The mini-memoirs are like the people who wrote them: frank, brilliant, gossipy, bawdy, sweet, nasty, humorous, revealing, sensual, scholarly—filled with the discerning, variegated discoveries of people driven to be immersed in the art world.
From 1960 to 1966, the poets and other artists who gathered at Tenth Street Coffeeshop, Les Deux Megots and Le Metro in Manhattan formed a Salon des Independants, a unit discrete from other non-academic arts groups in New York and from other groups of writers. It had its own individual texture and characteristics. It was the only cluster moving toward the evolution of a new art form which would jump literature rapidly in the direction of the new century at the edge of new technology, including development of the computer. Four of the larger groups outside of academia have already been given attention in studies and books: The Beats, of San Francisco’s North Beach; the Black Mountain College poets, who mostly read at university and bookshop venues; the original members of and descendants of the New York School as centered on the West Side in upper Manhattan and later at St. Mark’s Poetry Project in the East Village, who advocated a particular style of poetry related to glorifying personal events and details of one’s life in a cool, semi-humorous style similar to the elite linguistics of The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly; and Fluxus, “the radically democratic, proto-conceptualist, collective [international] art movement” (definition from Connoisseur Magazine).
At first glance, the Light Years group appears to be a random gathering, but an underlying configuration becomes evident. With a close look, one can establish “order, pattern, arcs of behavior… patterns other people can’t see…” (Shareen Joshi, The Joshi Effect, Santa Fe Institute). This would be the one New York group who propelled poetry onto stages, arenas, halls, lofts and garages as an ingredient of multimedia. Variety would seem this group’s most immediately perceptible characteristic, both as to personae and artistic product. Without a concise name by which it could be quickly identified, people referred to it by the name of the coffeeshop where the weekly readings took place. The other groups, each practicing a particular kind of writing, have been easier to label than one which covered the entire range of writing, from the classically sourced to the crisp corner of the avant-garde and even extending into the new merging of the arts.
There was a highly specialized energy held in common by over 180 apparently disparate artists. Armand Schwerner, a Light Years poet, used “a horde of elective affinities” to describe this group of writers and other artists who came together at three coffeeshops, sequentially from 1960 to 1966, to read their work aloud, exchange gossip and news of the tribe, and develop social relationships of every stripe imaginable (yes, the one you just thought of included). The artists in the Light Years arena were open to many visions and perspectives; they were in a period of intensive personal growth and outreaching in the development of their art. Concurrent groups influenced and had input toward the formation of the individual art being produced at Tenth Street and Deux Megots. These were academia, Fluxus, experimental theater, multimedia, intermedia, happenings, Abstract Expressionist Art and Pop Art, dance, and contemporary film.
What drew these people together? What binding elements, common beliefs, and energy sources caused this group to unite and then keep up a bond for six years? These artists could be found living and working in an area of the city which was on the edge of gentrification—what effect did that locus have? What was the relationship of the Light Years group to the other arts groups of that era? What were the demographics of these people, i.e., what was the personal makeup of the participating artists: point of origin, background, education, spheres of interest, motivations for being involved intensely in producing art? And, very importantly, what were the ingredients that made these group readings internationally famous quite rapidly after the group coalesced?
At a poetry reading at the Deux Megots Coffeeshop in 1962, the poet Paul Blackburn observed to the editor that there was clearly a core cluster of some 35 writers who consistently showed up, and he used the word leitmotif, the musical form of a repeated theme associated with the appearance and reappearance of a person or idea. He then mentioned Jackson Mac Low’s early book Light Poems; later, when another writer labeled the group as “light years ahead of the contemporary culture,” these comments merged and evolved into the title Light Years. It included the concept that the work being produced here was avant-garde rather than populist, hence was not to achieve wide recognition and acknowledgment until decades later: by 1985, a list of participants in the Coffeehouse Years, 1960-1966, showed that over half of the 180 had received illustrious grants and honors, including NEA, Guggenheim, NYSCA, Obie, Oscar, Emmy and Fulbright. This was of great interest because at that time the artists of the group were regarded as mavericks.
In the winter of 1960, there were no coffeeshops in Manhattan in the area which was becoming known as the East Village. On the edge of 1961 (some writers remember snow on the ground), two entrepreneurs, Mickey Ruskin, a lawyer from New Jersey, and Ed Kaplan, a New Yorker, opened the Tenth Street Coffeeshop on the block between The Bowery and Fourth Avenue, in a building owned by Ed Schwartz. Tenth Street was already attracting Abstract Expressionist artists who were in room-sized galleries or studios (Brata Brothers, Hilda Carmel, Bill deKooning). The area was ripe for gentrification: a run-down district right next to The Bowery, a street with cheap hotels and rooming-houses. When artists move in, it’s the beginning of renovation and rehab. Mickey Ruskin knew something—he was later to achieve renown as the sequential owner of several notable watering-spots: the Ninth Circle and the famous Max’s Kansas City, a bar devoted to visual and literary artists, and the proprietor of an early multimedia locus, Longview Acres. The neighborhood also becomes a newly fashionable destination for people to taste the life of the artist at a safe remove. In 1960-1961, “Mystery Bus Tours” from the Five Towns region of Long Island made regular stops on Tenth Street so that suburban folk could add a vicarious ingredient of risk to their programs. These visitors could easily be the original birth-family of the artists of the East Village.
Coffeehouses have for centuries been a place where one could meet kindred souls for discussion and conversation in a neutral space not as intimate as home. One could take solitary time to jot notes for creative projects. In Paris, famed cafés drew local and expat writers and painters early in the last century; post-war Japan had many coffeehouses in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1950s had European-influenced coffeeshops, some of which had occasional poetry readings. The Tenth Street Coffeeshop, at street level in a semi-tenement neighborhood of 50-year-old buildings, was a tiny space divided by waist-high wooden verticals on either side of which were tables that could seat two or three. At the far end were coffee-making machines and a cash register. From the onset, this coffeeshop attracted poets, at first an intense group of 10 or 15 and burgeoning until 30 or more writers (and a few painters) were regularly filling the space to overflowing every Thursday evening. At this point, Mickey Ruskin and his new partner, Bill Mackey, opted for a space that was three times larger, on Seventh Street between First and Second Avenues. Mickey named the new larger place after a famous coffeeshop in Paris, but gave it a slightly different spelling: he called it “Les Deux Megots”. This venue was to become the nucleus of a major forum for the encouragement and development of artists; the group was to continue cohesively as a unit until 1966.
FEEDBACK A CRUCIAL INGREDIENT.
Word got around and people came. On an average once-a-week reading night, some 35 writers would show up, many of whom would be planning to read from new work. One could see the same core group of writers week after week. From the onset, the meetings had pure magnetic energy. Artists are about communication. During the initial months when the group was still at Tenth Street, a format was established of informal commentary by the poets on the work being read and this continued at the new coffeeshop until it was outmoded by the sheer number of poets who attended. By then, readers received comments and input individually after a piece was read aloud. It was an accepting milieu. The one unstated and unifying rule of membership was to attend consistently, be writing, and be willing to read the writing aloud to others and to listen to others as they present their work, and to respond to them in turn. Responsiveness and feedback were treasured. Voluntary membership in this club of outsiders depended on producing an art and sharing that art...
$40 AWAREing Press/ Spuyten Duyvil, 2006–2010
Light Years: an Anthology on Sociocultural Happenings (Multimedia in the East Village, 1960-1966)
Poetry’s motion on and off the page into multimedia: a study of the participants in the Light Years group... by the editor
Re Carol, from publisher Carl Ginsburg
On the design, by James Beach
Mini-memoirs, era poetry, essays on form & subjective history by:
W. TERRY ABBOTT
Remembering the Downtown Scene
New York in the 1960s
Remembrance of Things to Come
Listening to Sonny Rollins at the Five-Spot
In the '60s
The Mimeograph Revolution
From Morningside Pits to the Higher East Side
Cubby and Gil
A View of the New Oral Poetry
Cockroaches and Coffee
Memories of a Peripheral Poet, or, 185 Avenue C
Flames and Roots
My Mother, Marguerite
Les Deux Megots Mon Amour
Coffeehouse Poetry on the Lower East Side
The 97,000-Mile-A-Minute Poetry Machine
JACKSON MAC LOW
The Poetry Scene in New York
Mac Low Interviewed (by Nicholas Zurbrugg)
Some Thoughts on Jackson (by Mordecai-Mark Mac Low)
The Living and the Poets
Gain Ground Opens New Territory
Les Deux Megots
Poet is Who I Am
Some Lines About Paul Blackburn and Jackson Mac Low
Free Form Recollections of New York
The Aquarium Fancier
The Deux Megots, The Hardware Poets Playhouse, The Metro Café
Sound of the Serpent
The Avant-Garde on the Lower East Side
Remembering the New York 1960s Coffee House World of Poetry
Seeking My Niche on East 4th
About Hannah (letter from Bergé to E. Antin)
ROBERT A. WILSON
The Phoenix - 18 Cornelia Street - Bookshop To The Poets
LIGHT YEARS GROUP CHART
Names of 180 avant-garde participants, with achievements key
PHOTOS & EPHEMERA
Art-insert, 28 color pages