From Motown to Mill Town: ‘Heads of State’ Press Release

Bruce Wilkinson, John Rylands Research Institute researcher, writes his sixth blog post on the amazing Dave Cuncliffe Collection, acquired earlier this year:

The next item I’d like to highlight from the Dave Cunliffe archive is a 1967 press release from the ‘Heads of State’ which, alongside press cuttings from the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, outlines the arrest of numerous artists and musicians on seemingly trumped-up drugs charges. Amongst these were political activist and manager of the MC5 rock group, John Sinclair, whose verse appeared in Poetmeat earlier in the 1960s. So the interesting question is, how were two Lancashire small press publishers connected with prominent figures of the US counterculture?

John Sinclair arrested

In their search for innovative poetry Dave Cunliffe and Tina Morris made global contacts at a time in the early 1960s when communication was far more difficult than it is today. As most homes didn’t even have a telephone or TV, news and ideas took a long time to travel across even relatively short distances.  This was particularly true of anything outside the ordinary: the mainstream media were unlikely to cover the radical or experimental. Other than the prohibitively expensive telegram the only realistic form of communication for most was through the post. So sending letters or postcards was how you kept in touch with friends and relatives and was part of everyday life, helped by a cheap and efficient nationalised postal service making two daily deliveries (younger British readers may find this difficult to believe). Without the internet or social media, often the most difficult element of knowledge transmission was locating the address of the person you wanted to get in touch with, but the BB Books editors were helped by little poetry magazines’ review sections, detailing how to correspond with other editors and poets.

It’s worthwhile taking a moment to contemplate the nature of communication by letter. It gave writers the capacity to explore thoughts and feelings in greater depth and with it the opportunity to distribute complex concepts via the mail. Also the time taken for missives to be penned and then to travel allowed for a rhythm to develop between authors whereby new beliefs could be exchanged. With this culture in mind, correspondents traded revolutionary poetry in a period long before information was easily accessible, opening independent channels of transmission through which innovative philosophies could be fostered. This was news undiluted by the refracting prism of newspaper journalists or editors but rather first-hand accounts of what was happening on the ground from those who would become important countercultural figures in New York, Detroit, San Francisco and Cleveland. So alongside the poetry distributed by post came news of alternative philosophies and new lifestyle choices: thoughts about environmentalism, pacifism, gay rights and radical protest were swapped alongside avant-garde verse communicating similarly militant ideas.

It wasn’t easy to find people’s postal addresses but Morris and Cunliffe had a breakthrough when they reached New York poet Tuli Kupferberg who immediately responded with the contents of his literary contacts book. Amongst these, the editor of Interim books, Kirby Congdon, was key, sending the Blackburn pair the details of numerous US writers and later co-editing a special New York Poetmeat issue. Amongst this list was then nineteen-year-old lesbian Black Panther Pat Parker, her verse appearing in Poetmeat 5 but who is better known for co-founding the Black Women’s Revolutionary Council and the Women’s Press Collective in the States. Parker contributed to several works demanding women’s rights and, while working at the Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Centre, she published several poetry collections and books on feminism after which the Pat Parker/Vito Rosso New York library was partly named. Although Parker’s verse was out of print for several years, Sapphic Classics recently published an anthology which, covering the themes of race and violence, is now championed as both topical and inspirational at a time when the Black Lives Matter and Me Too campaigns are exploring those same issues five decades later.

Other contacts included Julian Beck who co-founded the experimental Living Theatre in New York with his wife Judith Malena. Heavily influenced by the French playwright Antonin Artaud, who believed in shocking complacent theatre-goers and in breaking-down the barrier between performers and audience, Beck and Malena held shows in unorthodox venues, outraging spectators with sex and drug references leading to confrontational productions and arrests for nudity and obscenity. Beck wrote several volumes of poetry and contributed to Poetmeat from as early as 1964, building a regular correspondence with Cunliffe almost culminating in a UK branch of the Living Theatre moving to Blackburn.

Born Rita Marie Dragonetti in New York of Italian immigrants, Ree Dragonette was writing poetry by seven and was included in Poetmeat 6. Dragonette became a legendary Greenwich Village figure as a poet, teacher and political activist, vigorously opposed to the Vietnam War and the supporter of various left-wing causes. Friends with fellow poet and radical Robert Lowell, much of her writing remains unpublished and she is perhaps now best-known for jazz musician Eric Dolphy’s setting of her poetry to music.

Political activist, co-founder of the White Panthers and manager of the Detroit rock group MC5, John Sinclair gave the band their revolutionary edge in a brief career which included a performance at the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention when thousands of protesters were attacked by the National Guard. Connected with the Yippies (Youth International Party), the group was one of the first to link rock and roll with militant politics, bringing a fervently left wing message into mainstream music via gigs which fused the showmanship of a James Brown revue to dialectic lyrics and between song diatribes. Earlier in the sixties, Sinclair worked as jazz critic for Downbeat magazine and wrote poetry heavily influenced by the avant-garde free bop of the period, contributing to Poetmeat from 1966. After several drug busts (including the one highlighted in the press release) and a ten-year prison sentence (of which he served two years), in the early-70s he moved to Amsterdam from where he still makes regular radio broadcasts and continues to write and perform poetry.

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