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Time Passages 

The Poets Mimeo movement

click to enlarge firehouse.jpg

You could drive the length of Church Street — the entire length, all the way to the church. “Progressive” was a simple adjective. A ride on the city bus cost a quarter. That was Burlington in the 1970s.

And if you passed by Tinker Greene’s Booth Street apartment, you probably heard the drum spinning on an old mimeograph machine — ka-chunk, ka-chunk — cranking out poetry for a band of local bards known, fittingly enough, as Poets Mimeo. To say it was a small-press operation is like saying Borders is just a bookstore.

Though the Poets Mimeo story was brief — more like haiku, really — it captures a unique moment in the cultural life of Burlington before the Marketplace, the megastore and the poetry slam. Throughout April, National Poetry Month, a cadre of original Poets Mimeo cooperative members is hosting a series of poetry readings and an exhibit of published materials, revisiting their glory days and, they hope, revitalizing local interest in local poetry.

The Poets Mimeo are graying, some are bespectacled and coffee is the hardest stuff going around at readings now. But the opening-night event revealed their unflagging passion for Burlington, poetry and the future of both.

In all, 12 poets took the podium at the Firehouse Gallery on a recent Friday night. While the reading was open to all poets, the majority were Poets Mimeo alumni, making the evening feel like a high school reunion for the very hip. Inside jokes spiced the patter, deceased friends received dedications, and tales of Nixon-era naughtiness made their way around again.

Some of the readings were drawn from the Poets Mimeo “archives” — that is, the various attics, barns and garages where they had been stashed for a quarter-century or so — offering a nostalgic return to the loose form and theme of much street poetry. Shepherd Ogden, wearing an antique-looking Phantoms Pizza jacket, read some circa-’70s road verse that he couldn’t attribute definitively to his brother or his own hand. Michael Jewell and Tinker Greene hit what the latter called a “proto-slam” note with Jewell’s poem for two overlapping voices. As Jewell said of the poem, “It has a certain rhythm, but I don’t know what it is.” That’s vintage Poets Mimeo — more concern for the moment than what produced it.

“It was really a very anarchistic kind of enterprise,” says Greene, who co-founded the cooperative with Charlotte poet Bud Lawrence. “We really didn’t want to have any form or any borders or rules.” In fact, Greene adds, he and his cohorts often changed the name of the publishing entity from one publication to the next. “It was kind of a goofy sense that we had of how much fun literature could be,” he says.

Even at peak output, the Poets Mimeo effort was a modest one. As Lawrence recalls, most of the press runs numbered less than a hundred — sometimes much less — and were circulated mainly among the 30 or so poets who formed the core of the group. The publications themselves were also pretty basic, such as Blasting, the first Poets Mimeo release. Michael Breiner, who worked with Greene on the UVM literary magazine The News & The Weather, remembers Blasting as a “two-sided legal sheet of paper with a mess of cutups and concrete poems and things like that.”

But the Poets Mimeo and townies who remember their high period recall the poetry readings as their most vital contribution. Starting in the Fresh Ground Coffeehouse on lower Church Street, which is now the Five Spice Café, the readings migrated mainly to the Firehouse building and the since-vanished German Club in the Old North End. “I think we really tried to maintain a certain spirit,” Breiner says. “The mimeo was almost secondary… a way to document what we were doing at that point.”

According to Lawrence, that spirit was directed toward spontaneity and an openness to all writers in the community. “It was a very yeasty time,” he says, “a sort of settling down out of the wildness of the ’60s without getting rid of too much of the wildness in terms of art and literature.”

Poet Chico Martin remembers the excitement Poets Mimeo brought to the local scene. “We really had the sense that we were on the vanguard of something,” he says, citing influences ranging from the French Surrealists, to the New York Expressionists and, to a lesser extent, the Beat poets.

Yet if the Poets Mimeo ever paid homage to Literature with a capital “L,” Martin says it was intended to expose people to unfamiliar work in hopes of encouraging them to read and write — not to understand poetry as something that happens only on “a grandiose and academic scale.”

“Street poetry” became an apt description for the cooperative as their reading attendees swelled out the door — the grandiose and academic among them. Just as Greene and Breiner had included townie work on the pages of UVM’s literary mag, so did the Poets Mimeo readings include professor-poets, either working on the hill or making their way up or down. Current UVM English profs T. Alan Broughton and David Huddle were among their ranks, as was former faculty member Robert Caswell, whom Martin calls “the patron saint” of poetry in Burlington.

Caswell had recently “come on hard times,” wrote Lindy Hough in a 1977 article in the Sunday Rutland Herald Times Argus. But his poetry career got a shot in the arm when Poets Mimeo published his collection Epitaph for a Street in May 1975. The volume struck a chord with Burlingtonians for its often-bitter reflections on Queen City life — Caswell’s neighborhood had been bulldozed in the cause of “urban renewal” in the late 60’s.

The book of poems helped fund later Poets Mimeo projects, including Caswell’s Exiled from North Street in 1976. Greene would make editorial contributions to Caswell’s The Compass of the Heart, published in 1979 by North Atlantic Books.

While Caswell’s success was not the beginning of the end for Poets Mimeo, the breakthrough did signify the cooperative was changing and growing. As Hough prophesied in 1977, “what is entirely local in orientation may need to seek a wider intellectual world to grow also. This perhaps means that each poet has a limited time when affiliation with a local poets’ co-op does any good.”

By 1979, Greene had outgrown his native Vermont and moved to San Francisco, marking what most Poets Mimeo agree was the end of their era.

As their kick-off reading indicated, however, that was hardly the end of their poetry. Everyone has continued to write. Bill Davis has produced scores of chapbooks. Martin produces roughly one a year. Anna Blackmer is now about halfway through that cycle of poems based on the I Ching she started in the late ’70s.

The spirit of openness also remains. Two of the highlights of the inaugural reading were poems by Andy Krackow, 26, and Michael Nedell, 36 — Rhombus poetry slam regulars who stopped by the Firehouse to share a few lines in a contemporary groove. Krackow’s clever internal rhyming and witty turns of phrase drew quick breaths and raucous laughs from her older counterparts, while Nedell floored them with the sung refrain, “At least the snow is gone from Church Street,” from lyrics that could be interpreted as commentary on the commercial strip’s air of preciousness.

Clearly, much has changed since the Poets Mimeo roamed the streets. One of the more dramatic developments has occurred in local poetry itself — the rise of the poetry slam. The popular, fast-paced and highly competitive spoken-word form is a puzzlement to some Poets Mimeo members. “I’m perplexed by slam culture,” Breiner says. “I’m sort of bewildered by the scoring thing and all of that. But… everyone’s got something to say, and if they can find a way to say it that they’re comfortable with then, then cool.”

Lawrence, an avowed “anarchist and nature mystic,” is most at odds with the glitzy effect, rules and entertainment ethic at the heart of slam. “I applaud the idea that poetry should be given as much scope as possible, but the format of the readings is so clicked in and so ratcheted up,” he says. “There’s a conformist format, [and] poetry is not about conforming… If you hype up the poetry and make too much of it as an entertainment, the effects of cogitation and emotion get blunted or erased.”

For the next month poets and community members can experience poetry both in this entertainment-rich context and through the lens of local literary history — and contemplate how their next lines should read.

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About The Author

Erik Esckilsen

Erik Esckilsen

Bio:
Erik Esckilsen is a contributing writer for Seven Days and Kids Vermont. He is also a professor of rhetoric and digital storytelling at Champlain College.

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