What I’ve Learned

by Karl Gartung A talk at the Chicago Poetry Project, Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Preface: I’ll write here on what I’ve learned, or more accurately what I am learning since any state of knowledge for me is strictly provisional. My motto: I can’t share what I know, so must share what I am learning. I am skeptical even of that.

If what is meant by education is credentials, then I don’t have any qualifications.

My education in poetry was earned by reading, in high school I started with Carl Sandburg, The People, yes (“the woman named tomorrow . . . we are the greatest city, the greatest nation, nothing like us ever was”), and ee cummings, that balloon man. When I got to college I read Whitman (“Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking”). Then in my junior year, at last, William Carlos Williams (Pictures from Bruegel, with Asphodel that Greeny Flower, then Paterson which merely took my head off, the preface and that section in book 2: “The descent beckons . . .”). It was the late 60’s, and I kept reading, Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti, Snyder, Levertov.

After I finished college, there wasn’t much for a long time, well five years. I was pretty involved in theatre, up until 1978, I was so easily distracted. I read the poetry bookshelf at the available library in Flint, MI , but I couldn’t find anything to take me past William Carlos Williams. I haunted bookstores in Ann Arbor with same result. Anne Kingsbury, my wife, and I moved to South Haven, MI, giving Anne a reprieve from colleges. I worked in an apple cold storage and then, strangely, and sold orchard equipment. At night, I read and reread Williams. Later I found a little bookstore in Saugatuck (Call Me Ishmael), that had books by Charles Bukowski (Post Office, terrific entertainment, and Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills, with the great epigraph inside the front cover: “Get your name up in lights, get it up in eight and a half by eleven mimeo”).

Then we moved to Milwaukee. Anne was teaching at the university and I was trying to take up theatre again, but having a hard time. I happened to take a class from Jerry Rothenberg, this was when he organized the EthnoPoetics Symposium at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. For the first time I heard Jackson Mac Low, Anne Waldman, Simon Ortiz, Diane Wakoski and many others. I was amazed, stunned, disoriented. Then Jerry left town.

I needed employment and at this time I  met Karl Young. I was hired by Karl and Tom Montag to baby sit their small press bookstore, Boox, Inc. Tom was editing Margins (the first serious small press literary review, the first to in some way comprehensively notice the great outpouring of that sixties/seventies wave of literary publishing). Karl was editing the great symposiums that were regularly published there, and editing his own little magazine, Stations, along with his small press, Membrane. They had gotten a grant for small press distribution.

It was a miracle to be hired there. I think it was on the basis of my enthusiasm for Williams, etc. Maybe I was hired for my idea that the bookstore would need to go to some extraordinary lengths to introduce the writers on its shelves to readers, like readings and events. I assumed that since I certainly needed to be introduced to these writings, probably most of the Milwaukee reading public would need that, too.

This is when my education really began. Within a few months I had finally discovered for myself the Objectivists including especially Lorine Niedecker, George Oppen, Bunting, Reznikoff, and Zukofsky; the Black Mountain poets Olson, Creeley, Corman, Oppenheimer, Duncan and through Duncan the San Francisco Renaissance – Helen Adam, Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer. I discovered the  Canadian writers and presses too, bpNichol, Paul Dutton,  and Daphne Marlatt. Also, the Fluxus poets and the writings of John Cage. Ian Hamilton Finlay and Guy Davenports great great book of essays, The Geography of the Imagination. It went on and on.

The commercial presses and sadly the universities, had deserted these literatures in the fifties, had even in some ways conspired to keep them invisible. This was a great parallel universe of poetry, in many ways invisible from the perspective of a Nebraska educated merely interested college student.

This parallel universe was exalting, and when I found it I was angry, realizing I had lost time, lost reading. It convinced me that this literature needed an outlet, a place for others like me who would not otherwise have a chance to be exposed to it. Poetry cannot be a live art if it is confined to a college or university practice.

I soon met Dick Higgins, during his stint at the Center for 20th Century Studies at UWM, where he was organizing a Performance Symposium. Dick impressed on me the many connections between literature and other art forms. Theatre was obvious, but soon the distinctions between poetry and music, or the visual arts, etc. seemed at least blurry and mostly quaint and non-existent.

In 1978, Woodland Pattern began the reading series (the first reading was by Paul Metcalf), in cooperation with the Milwaukee Public Library, with which we had initiated a Small Press Book Rack project. And, we started our concert series, with Thomas Gaudynski. We were mounting gallery exhibitions in the front of the store. The store itself was growing exponentially. Starting with less than a hundred titles, we had soon grown to over 2,000,  and now we have over 30,000.

In 1979, we decided to seek non-profit tax status, so we could do our own fund raising. This meant that we would change our name. Paul Metcalf’s great bicentennial book, Apalache, provided the name, Woodland Pattern. We wanted a name that would contain our location and our purpose. “South of Lake Superior . . . a making and trading culture.” We wanted a name that emphasized local practice, craft and also its context, through trade. We also liked the pun on Wood Patterns.

It was then that Anne Kingsbury became the real manager of Woodland Pattern. I ended up being the volunteer program coordinator for many years, until finally we hired Stacy Szymaszek and when she graduated to St. Mark’s, Chuck Stebelton.

So, Woodland Pattern became a response to the need for a public poetry. I am amazed that we have had this privilege for so long, and gratified to think Woodland Pattern will continue, maybe for another thirty years?

If it is not well managed, it cannot be an alternative. Which means, without Anne, my wife and partner, there would be no Woodland Pattern, at least not one that lasted for thirty years.