Monday, July 13, 2015

In 1968, Ed van Aelstyn, my linguistics professor at San Francisco State & co-founder of Coyote’s Journal, my favorite poetry mag of the mid-1960s, persuaded me that if I was serious about my poetry I ought to attempt a journal of my own. So, after the strike at State caused every untenured faculty member I respected at the school (including van Aelstyn) to quit or be fired, I dropped out, took a few classes at Merritt College (still in those days in the flatlands of North Oakland) to get the units I needed to transfer to Berkeley and, with the aid of d alexander, sent letters to every poet I was interested in asking for work, getting responses and/or sparking correspondences with Robert Kelly, Larry Eigner, Daphne Marlatt, Clayton Eshleman, Jerome Rothenberg, Armand Schwerner et al. And then I did … nothing. Which was exactly what I knew about publishing a magazine. I had no clue whatsoever, no money – one could live easily enough on $150 a month in those days, but that didn’t leave one much in the way of disposable income – and seemingly no social skills that would have led me to actually ask somebody who knew more about this process than I. Gradually, the thermometer-like guilt meter began to rise, but once I got accepted into UC, embroiled in David Melnick’s attempt to get post-New American poets like David Shapiro & David Bromige into the campus literary journal Occident & a subsequent project with Melnick to get a portfolio of Bay Area poets into the Chicago Review, the idea of a journal of my own slipped further & further from my consciousness. Then there was Kent State & I found myself among a handful of undergraduates on the steering committee of the Wheeler Action Committee – as the English Department reconstituted as an anti-war project called itself – running a silkscreen workshop in the grad student carrels to support other anti-war groups, climbing out David Henderson’s window to hang the Harriet Tubman Hall banner from the Wheeler balconies, putting in 20-hour days and starting to acquire those aforementioned absent social skills. After the end of that semester, Shelley & I moved to Buffalo briefly, then Trumansburg, & then back to Berkeley where I won my six-year battle with the draft board & we finally called it a day on our five years of marriage.

So, it was in the fall of 1970, while I was living in a dilapidated backyard cottage on 61st Street in North Oakland that I got an unsolicited submission from a San Francisco poet I’d never even heard of named David Gitin. The long repressed guilt thermometer instantly popped up, and was now close to boiling over, not only because I had sat on all this poetry for so unconscionably long, but because Gitin’s poetry was terrific. This was exactly what I had thought a little magazine was supposed to accomplish – putting you in touch with great new poets. While at Berkeley, I’d read all of Pound’s correspondence in microfilm in the UC library & had realized that his impact on modernism & beyond came about no so much because of his own writing – tho I was (and still am) a fan of The Cantos – but because he saw it as his duty to put A in touch with B, X in touch with Y. Somehow I had accomplished this, albeit on an infinitely smaller scale, with my little non-existent journal just by wanting it to be so.

This was the poem that first made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Its title simply is Poem:
color the sky
beyond the door

the stone

the museum

I could see, of course, the heritage of imagism and objectivism in those lines, plus the accentuated concreteness of imagery. If it reminded me of George Oppen’s work, it was the Oppen of Discrete Series, the edges of each image all but chiseled into marble. Running parking lot into a single word seemed exactly the right touch – that absent en dash is at least part of the drama of the final line. That somebody was paying such close attention was what I sought out in poems, and do to this day.

So I wrote to David & told him, yes, I would be happy to publish his work as soon as I figured out how to do that. And I gathered up a few pages of the writing I’d collected, typed them up, hand-drew a logo for my instantly renamed new project & headed down Telegraph Avenue to a copy shop where I printed the first issue of Tottel’s. I didn’t get David’s poems into the journal until the next issue, although I would go on to devote the entire seventh issue of the journal to his work. It was the third single-author issue of Tottel’s, following ones by Rae Armantrout & Robert Grenier, and preceding ones by Thomas Meyer, Clark Coolidge, David Melnick & Larry Eigner. I still consider David’s work very much on a par with that list of poets, which readers of this blog will recognize as pretty close to ground zero for my aesthetic choices to this day.¹

David, once I met him, was a tall quiet man with a ready laugh & whose intensity was somewhat hidden by a deep shyness. He gave me my first solo reading ever at a bookstore around the corner  from the former Hotel Wentley & later would also give me my first campus reading as well once he began to teach down in Monterey. I recall taking him to see a midnight show by the Cockettes in North Beach, a side of San Francisco culture that straight men were just starting to adjust to in those pre-Harvey Milk years.  His path to poetry had been an unusual one, picking the University of Buffalo not because Creeley & Olson taught there, but because it was his hometown state college (a path that Lisa Jarnot would replicate a few years later). How he got to San Francisco I’m not quite certain, but he and his first wife Maria soon moved south and David’s already encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and world music became an even deeper focus for him as he pulled back from his engagement with “the scene” aspect of poetry. I recall sometime in the 1970s telling him of the death of Paul Blackburn years before and being shocked that he hadn’t heard, given that he’d been one of the closest readers of Blackburn I’d known. When I was putting together In the American Tree in 1981-2, David’s position was that poetry was “over” for him, he wasn’t writing or sending work out, and that it made no sense to think about him for the anthology.

Happily, that was only partly true – he was writing, but had no real interest in engaging with what he took to be a thoroughly corrupting publishing scene, and for much of the rest of his life he would craft these small, utterly gorgeous chapbooks of his writing – a tradition that readers of John Martone and Tinker Greene will surely recognize – and send them to friends. I read every word of each one, even as many contained poems I might have seen before, or even recycled book titles (Journey in 1997, The Journey Home in 2010). In addition, he would let publishers he trusted – George Mattingly or his former student Dan Linehan – bring out somewhat larger collections. Woke Up This Morning, a 119-page selection of 52 years of work, came out earlier this year, self-published but with a Mattingly design.²

Like Lorine Niedecker, Alfred Starr Hamilton, NH Pritchard, Besmilr Brigham or even Curtis Faville (who reviewed Woke Up This Morning here), David Gitin was an American original, whose commitment to poetry was something quite apart from any commitment to the poetry scene. His devotion to getting the right word onto the page was absolute, leaving no room for sentiment, foggy-headedness or any other manner of blur.

Getting his books & the occasional card or email, I was able to follow David at a distance and like several of his friends, was pleased and not a little amazed when he declared that he’d reconnected with his high school sweetheart Gloria Avner and was heading to the Florida Keys to spend the rest of his life with her. Which he did, passing finally late last month.

While Woke Up This Morning must represent the poems David wanted saved, there are in his other books enough great poems to warrant a volume twice that size, possibly more. In addition to the early pieces you can find online in Tottel’s, Michael McClure has posted several on his website, you can find a few in Big Bridge, and you can find virtually everything on One in particular that I like a lot is “Words,” which I’ve always imagined as a sequel of sorts to that first poem of David’s that I read in 1970:
I leap
from museums
onto passing cars

¹ Too white & too male, I am well aware.
² Woke Up One Morning was published in 1996 and contains untitled what is now  the title poem of  this final volume.