… and then do everything else but those 10
Salt Lake City: Litmus, 1977
On Thursday I decided to hoof it all the way over to City Lights and cop the bread they owed me for books I had left with them. Stalking down Market street, almost got clipped by a bus. There was nobody in at the bookstore who could pay me, their clerks being dragged in off the street and paid the minimum wage, I guess like everybody else, didnt know anything about it, I would have to come back later. Always deal with bookstores in cash. I did sell a copy of the Bukowski book upon returning to the Glide to Helen Luster of Los Angeles.
(from Valga Krusa)
Everybody is somebody in Valga Krusa, an account of the 1960s San Francisco literary scene so fast-paced it turns its reader into somebody too, somebody right then and there, alongside poets whose work is nowadays considered to be a literary staple. A book about books, people writing, publishing, making books at a time when ideals were the most important social currency - in other words, a book that should be required reading for anyone treading the treacherous waters of independent publishing.
Charles Potts, the Virgil who will from page one grab your hand and drag you through all the circles of Bay Area literary purgatory, was described by David Bromige, the late Californian poet, as “a tireless organizer of reading series, a liaison between poets, revolutionaries, and the pacifists of the Peace and Freedom movement.”
In his account of Valga Krusa at the National Poetry Center in Orono, Maine, Bromige summed up the complex relationships between all of the book’s characters:
Those poets who matured in the previous decade, who were to some degree instigators of the excitements of the sixties—Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Diane Di Prima, among many others—look very different when viewed from the community of younger poets even further out than themselves. Potts and his peers exemplify the ways in which The New American Poetry shaded into poetry of the streets, the be-ins, the mimeo mags, even the Sexual Freedom League. Richard Krech (ed., Avalanche), Julia Vinograd (still the bubble-lady poet of Telegraph Ave), Andy Clausen (strips off, reads nude), John Oliver Simon (ed., Aldebaran Review), Alta (sexually outspoken no-b.s. woman poet), John Thomson (of FUCK fame), Pat Parker (who brought blackness into the largely white world of these writers), Herb de Grasse (wildly eccentric filmmaker), Mel Buffington (ed., Blitz), and Country Joe of the rock group C. J. and the Fish, are just a few of the colorful persons who undergo little literary transformation into the same-name characters of Potts’ memoir.
We see their impatience with the better-known poets, who are often at once their heroes and their villains, figures being transformed into the latest establishment. There is no doubt that the existence of this underneath-the-underground community in the Bay Area had its effect on those poets whom we now think of as the principals of this period. Their appraisals helped keep them honest. While few among this loose-knit group are remembered today, their radical faith in the revolutionary power of poetry constituted a horizon for the times, an instigation and a goad.
ZiN Daily managed to contact Mr. Potts and trouble him for just a bit of background about the book and his thoughts on the type of publishing that presents the most resilient and most vital segment of book production. Living in Walla Walla, WA, Mr. Potts is a proud breeder of Appaloosas and some equally extraordinary writing.
So, without further ado, here’s…
Valga Krusa Questionaire
ZiN Daily: Our subjective attitude to Valga Krusa (as a book, meaning not merely the content but the whole thing) is that it stands for literary nonconformism (which also implies publishing nonconformism). Only a small percentage of writers dare to ignore (or defy) the traditional venues for getting their work to the public. However, it is our impression that what might seem as sort of a filter for sub-par literary work primarily functions as a form of censorship (nowadays this censorship is less dictated by politics and more by commercial interests, though arguably the two are never separate one from the other). What is your attitude towards the literary/publishing establishment and what do you see as a role of a progressive writer in the current circumstances (is it that different than it was in the 1970s)?
Charles Potts: My attitude toward the literary/publishing establishment is that it is a joke. People of limited wet ware in a hall of mirrors congratulating each other for being indistinguishable from, and certainly no threat to, the rest of the establishment, the political and commercial power. My old friend Douglas Blazek, publisher of ‘Ole, used to say “make poetry dangerous.” That might be difficult to do in current circumstances, although I am working on a little piece called “The Mandelstam Challenge” to see if I can uncover any writing sufficiently well done to get the attention of the secret police (service) in the US, as Osip’s Stalin epigram did for him.
The role of a progressive writer has never changed. It is to write as well as possible with intellectual rigor, emotional resonance and artistic edge. To tell the truth, in other words. Whether progressive means you want to challenge the status quo or ignore it may mean slightly different things.
ZiND: Having dealt with books in a number of capacities (poet, writer, editor, publisher etc.), what is your position towards more or less strict division between different role one might assume in the literary sphere?
CP: Publishing, in small operations, involves a fairly strict division of labor. Somebody has to come up with the funds for production, the producer. Somebody has to decide what to publish, the editor. Somebody has to be responsible for the layout and actual printing. Somebody has to be responsible for making sure as much of the rest of the world as possible is made aware of the book, in accurate terms, so a potential buyer or reader can be informed. I recall a wonderful algorithm called the 72 hour nag rule. The publisher is obligated to query the various participants as the process goes along to make sure everybody is doing their job. In a really small operation, say mine, one functions as a factotum, whether they are qualified or not, doing everything, with a little help from the Beatles, my friends.
Publishing in the United States started out as garage work. Houghton, Mifflin, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, Knopf, etc. were loners with money who amalgamated. For Avant Guard literary stuff, Ezra Pound put James Laughlin to work as a publisher because he realized JL didn’t have the chops to be a writer. He had money, Laughlin Steel money. New Directions. Nude Erections. Alan Swallow of Swallow press, his first book was by Thomas McGrath. Ferlinghetti at City Lights got lucky with Time magazine’s interest in the Beatniks. John Martin at Black Sparrow used the money from the sale of his D.H. Lawrence collection. Gave Bukowski a leg up. Charles Olson importuned a rich wanna be writer named Harvey Brown to publish his favorite stuff as Frontier Press, And so forth.
ZiND: 40 years later, do you feel that Valga Krusa has fulfilled its purpose? In what way?
CP: Purpose: after I had, in the 60s phrase, blown my mind, and went to Salt Lake City to convalesce I was nagged by the thought that something extraordinary had occurred to me and my friends in Berkeley in 1968. I used to have a very good memory and I wanted to get it all down as close to exactly as it happened as possible.
Perhaps some evidence that it has fulfilled its purpose would be in your discovery of the text and your positive response to it.
The young poet and musician, Adam Perry, wanted to know how to become immortal. It is simple; write so well the people can’t forget.
Another Youngster, Patrick Ferguson, drove all the way from Spokane to Yakima, 140 miles, to hear me read. I asked him whatever would cause somebody to do that? He said he had found a book of mine, The Opium Must go Thru, in Twice Told Tales, a used bookstore in Seattle, and it was the first book he had ever read that sounded like something he was trying to get out of his own head.
ZiND: Considering the changes in book design, printing and communications technology from 1977 till 2017, is there anything significantly different in terms of publishing approach you would do if you'd be publishing Valga Krusa today for the first time?
CP: The big switcheroo was from warehouse publishing to on demand. In warehouse publishing, you get as many copies printed at once as you can afford, expending big bucks, and then sell them one at a time, or if you are lucky thru a distributor. There’s much less $$ involved with on demand. The layout of course has been computerized. It is still possible to do fine letter press books with 19th century technology.
I tried very hard to get the publisher Harry Smith of The Smith Press in New York to publish Valga Krusa. He claimed it was too large in size for his operation and to fend me off or mollify me, agreed to publish my first major collection, Rocky Mountain Man, 1978. So I was left to do VK, more or less by myself. Litmus Inc. had been incorporated by then, thanks Kathy the attorney, The Reverend Sherman W. Clow,, the president, Harris Lennowitz, the director of the Jewish Studies Program at the Middle East Center of the University of Utah, Steve Jones of the Cosmic Aeroplane bookstore. my colleagues and friends. I had finished writing two more, more or less unpublished novels, Lake Earth, and The Farmer’s Daughter. My little well of things to write about was drying up. I worked for a friend of mine, the late Craig Crowther, at Wasatch Printing, in Sandy, Utah, as his typesetter. When I wasn’t working for CC, I could use the equipment to typeset VK. I got help with the cover design. CC had a small press, Folk Frog Press. He published my book, Charle Kiot.
I am sustained, always have been, always will, by the help of friends. I used to teach a time control seminar called Seize the Day. No matter what you do you will need two things: help; and more information. Always work on the most important thing you can.
ZiND: And, finally, what is Valga Krusa for you today - as a book, but also as sign of the times?
CP: A true story that is more or less unbelievable. Green Panda published the 2nd edition of Valga Krusa in 2008. We had a 40 year reprise reunion series of readings in Berkeley and San Francisco that year. We also had a fine reading series that year in Amherst/Northampton, Massachusetts, where Byron Coley and Thurston Moore (a collector of my work and lead guitarist for Sonic Youth) had published a 2nd edition of Little Lord Shiva.
The publisher of the 2nd edition of Valga Krusa, the intrepid Bree Bodnar, separated from her husband and moved to Kentucky, telling me on her way out the door that something had to be done with the copies of VK stored in a spare room in her house in Cleveland Heights. I said, send them out to me, and I will complete the distribution. I had 3 cartons of each volume at the time. Expecting many more books, I gave away all the ones I had, mostly to friends of mine and other writers and poets at two memorial services, one in Seattle, the other in Portland, for the fine poet and colleague Bill Shively who had recently passed away from a brain tumor. However, I never did get the rest of the books. Bree’s ex-husband failed to send them, and himself passed away last fall, under strange circumstances, and the books have disappeared as far as I can tell.
What does it mean to me today, nearly 50 years after the circumstances? If the disappearance of the books wasn’t so painful it would be amusing. For the first edition, working at Wasatch Printing, I used to ride the bus out to Sandy Utah, south of Salt Lake City, to the end of the line and then walk the remaining mile to Crowther’s house to work in his basement shop and set the type, day after day after day, in 1976/77.
Embossing the title pages and looking at the wide range of the publishers who took a chance on my work, I also note the several I published with my own imprint. Sometimes the writing would get ahead of the publishing and I would do it myself, rather than wait. How the South Finally Won the Civil War for example. I negotiated for 2.5 years with an editor for Houghton-Mifflin, got sick of it, had it accepted by a large/small press, Covered Bridge, in Massachusetts. We were halfway thru the copy edits when my contact came down with cancer. I couldn't face starting over with it so, voila, we did it ourselves.
Other fun item: I was on the beach in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, Southern Mexico in 1982 and met a chancer from New York named Jules Siegel, a nephew of Bugsy Siegel who built the Flamingo casino in Las Vegas. He had several books published, was hoping to talk Playboy into publishing his interview with Miguel De La Madrid, the then president of Mexico. Jules was fascinated and envious of the editorial freedom we had with the independent presses. I was envious of the production values and the distribution and cachet JS had with the New York arrangements. Question of what matters most, editorial free wheeling or good distribution?
The gold standard in American Literature and Poetry is of course Walt Whitman who wrote his poems, published them in books and wrote reviews of the books. Can't get any more vertically integrated than that. Except then you have to read the books and the reviews, your self.
When we did the 2nd edition of VK I used to, and still would, present it to youngsters as a cautionary tale. Find 10 things in this book that you should never attempt to do.
Valga Krusa is only one of the amazing titles you can find at ZVONA i NARI Library.