Punky Town

Remembering a Pre-gentrified Downtown

By Joshua Cohen

Published December 01, 2006, issue of December 01, 2006.
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Up Is Up But So Is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992
Edited by Brandon Stosuy
New York University Press, 510 pages, $29.95

The day the Bowery birthplace of punk CBGB’s closed last month, New Yorkers could open their New York Times and read an obituary for it — an article whose most shocking attribute was its byline. Richard Hell, the nom de punk and poetry of Richard Meyers, frontman for the Voidoids and the face of the 1980s so-called Blank Generation, had turned hack journalist for the most established of establishment papers. As Hell once asked in song, “Who says it’s good to be alive?”: If the underground still exists, it does so now at ground level, if not at a day-job worked 30 floors high above midtown.

Now, New York University Press has released the cutting-edge equivalent of a memory book: “Up Is Up But So Is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992,” Brooklyn writer Brandon Stosuy’s magisterial anthology-cum-reliquary of downtown writing and literary art. Its oversized, gorgeously decorated and even decorous pages host an impossibly rich variety of prose, poetry and the unidentifiable either/or — all produced by writers who either lived or worked or once visited or were published on or read in small presses and performance spaces below Manhattan’s Union Square but north of Mammon’s Wall Street.

With Hell turned Times scribe, and CBGB’s defunct — the club’s bearded, pseudo-communitarian owner, Hilly Kristal, rumored to be considering gutting the club’s original interior for enshrining in the Lucite tomb of Las Vegas — it’s high-time for downtown’s canonization, the making of curricula out of what had been perhaps New York’s last gasp of beatitude, the long and artistically managed hangover from the rebellion of the late 1950s, which began uptown at Columbia, or even in New Jersey, on the day that Allen Ginsburg crossed the Hudson like an undergraduate Moses.

Following that decade spent “On the Road” came the first originally mature generation of American poets, the so-called New York School. Though John Ashberry was to be that generation’s most accomplished poet, and Ted Berrigan its most notorious, the school’s most talented member was probably Frank O’Hara, the American poet who first initiated any significant degree of collaboration or crossover with the visual arts, and whose careening career was ended all too early in 1966, when he was hit by a car on Fire Island. After O’Hara’s death, and the obscuring of painterly abstraction (as best exemplified by Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly) behind the Day-Glo silkscreen of Andy Warhol’s Pop Art, a loose-change group of writers began holding their wakes amid the lofty and actual “loft” voids of what was then faded-industrial Soho and Tribeca, among the tenements of the East Village and, across Houston Street, those of the Lower East Side.

What was happening downtown? Writers were writing, and then they were publishing themselves. Artists were designing posters advertising readings by writers who would then write text to and about their collaborators’ art. Musicians were writing lyrics that, hey, turned out to be poetry. What else? Men were sleeping with women; women were sleeping with men and with women, too; men were sleeping with men, and transsexuals were sleeping with everybody.

Then AIDS moved in down the block, and destroyed more than a demonized Giuliani could ever hope to. In New York, free love and free-loft living became disassociated from the utopian hopes of the hippies, whose agrarian fantasies proved foreign to downtown’s asphalt landscape and its psychology of mere survival. “You simply got mugged if you ventured east of Avenue A after dark,” as Ron Kolm wrote.

Among the highlights given haven in this volume (rent-free) is work by Kathy Acker, the feminist scion of uptown German Jews turned stripper and a writer of the first rank. Tama Janowitz, also represented here, could have been exorcising Acker in her own autobiographical contribution, called “Modern Saint #271”: “As a child my favorite books had been about women who entered the convent. They were giving themselves up to a higher cause. But there are no convents for Jewish girls.” Jewish girls, it seems, have other higher causes: literature, for one, which Acker brought to a previously unknown pitch in her perfection of its most histrionic form, the rant, which is the High Modernist stream of consciousness made tributary to the muck of the East River. In her “From New York City in 1979,” she admitted, “I want more and more horrible disaster in New York cause I desperately want to see that new thing that is going to happen this year.” And later, “It’s necessary to go to as many extremes as possible.”

Acker had already done this, writing under her early 1970s pseudonym, The Black Tarantula. As I can’t quote its language in a family newspaper, suffice it to say that that excerpt from Acker’s “I Dreamt I Was a Nymphomaniac!” seems like an answer in advance to the first line of the poem that follows, this by another nice Jewish girl, Theresa Stern, who asks, “How come no one forces me to do what I won’t do?” Such interstices, and unlit intersections, to be found throughout this book, create in the work a communal sense that was perhaps not to be found among the egos, jealousies and rages of the original scene.

So-called transgressive writers, such as Bruce Benderson and Dennis Cooper, also make notable contributions (and Cooper engages in a discussion with Eileen Myles that serves as a charmingly structured afterword), as do other names since well established: Laurie Anderson, Eric Bogosian, Spalding Gray, Gary Indiana, Richard Kostelanetz and Thurston Moore, the lattermost better known as the better fourth of the punk band Sonic Youth. Among the lesser known, Ursule Molinaro is a diamond in the rough, and Sparrow (just Sparrow, thanks) is lightly wonderful. Michael Carter, poet and publisher, must have been channeling prophecy with the following, from 1982: “terror is released in lower manhattan/and the terrorists neither carry guns/nor subvert the state/but simply buy it off with promises […].” Facing that poem, titled “Lecture on Third Avenue (After V-Effect),” is another, seemingly a lighthearted riposte by Hal Sirowitz, formerly the self-professed poet laureate of Queens since converted to Brooklyn. “Father finds the porno movie a good place to eat his lunch./He tries not to make too much noise/when he bites into his matzoh sandwich.” Despite terror having visited these shores, God save us, our pornography and our unleavened bread.

There’s one irony not noted anywhere in this ultra-deluxe volume almost as tall and as wide as one of those new condos going up now in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg: Its publisher is the press of New York University — perhaps, through that school’s expansion and its landlord status over much of Lower Manhattan’s surreal-estate, the one entity most responsible for the destruction of what was known as downtown. Stosuy, hip as he is to the workings of the city, can’t be ignorant of this un-punky dissonance, and so, in a moment of dislocated diplomacy, he opens with Lucy R. Lippard’s epigraph: “The urban artist’s ‘sense of place’ is not rooted in rolling hills and nostalgia. It’s already once removed. It skins its knees on the pavement, steps in dog s***, and stumbles in the gutters as it is chased from one place to another by debts and developers.” Of course, all this is set in faux-typewriter font, and the book it comes in isn’t a mimeographed zine or flier, but a $30 coffee-table object printed in China.

The best last word here regarding such an intelligent and ironically lavish enshrining of an underground is supplied by Peter Cherches, a former performance artist and a downtown writer of fiction. At the end of his piece, Cherches writes of his relationship with a lover that might as well be mainstream, millennial New York: “We tried to put each other into words. But words weren’t enough. So we put each other into sentences. No good. Paragraphs. Unsatisfactory. Chapters. Not quite right. A book. Books. Volume upon volume upon volume. It just wouldn’t work. Nothing was enough, everything was too much.”

Joshua Cohen’s most recent novel is “Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto” (Fugue State Press).

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