Bruce Wilkinson writes:
In their search for innovative poetry, Tina Morris and Dave Cunliffe developed a network of small presses and little poetry magazines across Britain and around the world. Like the 1960s ‘British Poetry Revival’, the US had its own ‘Mimeograph Revolution’ with dozens of poetry publishers, journals of experimental verse and radical bookshops particularly on the east and west coasts, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s San Francisco City Lights being one of the most influential. However, in this blog post, we focus our attention on a lesser-known part of this movement, Cleveland, Ohio. The city had its own vibrant poetic counterculture with which the BB Books editors became connected, d. a. levy being one of the driving forces in the city’s underground. The Dave Cunliffe Archive contains a good deal of levy’s work along with publications from several Cleveland presses and some related ephemera.
Opened in 1963 and key to the burgeoning Cleveland scene, Jim Lowell’s Asphodel bookshop was from where a year later the poets levy, Kent Taylor, Russell Salamon, Adelaide Simon, Jau Billera and Russell Atkins issued The Cleveland Manifesto of Poetry setting-out their literary agenda. The joint declaration from levy and Atkins begins: “To write surface poems with the appearance of artificial flowers in order to communicate with persons by forcing them to resort to instinctive methods of understanding.” A bold statement of intent from then little-known writers, it helped instigate a creative explosion and political movement eventually spurring the authorities to act later that decade.
Levy experimented with language, grammar and syntax, initially writing only in lower case (thus forever becoming d. a. levy). Although his work is obviously Beat-influenced, particularly with its Buddhist themes and his willingness to break traditional poetic structures (long-form verse The Tibetan Stroboscope, North American Book of the Dead and Suburban Monastery Death Poem being better-known examples), levy also called upon European Surrealism and British Concrete poetry unusually connecting experimentation from both sides of the Atlantic.
Joel Lipman’s essay “d. a. levy and the Book Arts” argues that we should read his contribution as an extension of Charles Olson’s theory of folio as field of composition: “It’s in his understanding and exploration of the page as completely usable material where he exhibits important understandings and practices shared with artists of the book.”
Levy used his Renegade and 7 Flowers Press to publish his verse alongside work from the other Manifesto poets and the likes of Carol Bergé, Margaret Randall (see the El Corno Emplumado blog), dom sylvester houédard and Ed Sanders. Ghost and Free Lance Press put out work from Cleveland poets while Asphodel Bookshop also issued pamphlets of verse, levy occasionally contributing artwork to these imprints.
As in Britain, US experimental poetry pushed the art-form’s boundaries inspiring wider literary renewal while also forcing readers to reconsider their way of life. Alongside the verse and small press activity, levy edited The Marrahwanna Quarterly/Newsletter and The Buddhist 3rd Class Junkmail Oracle (to which Cunliffe contributed), countercultural magazines in which he further developed his prose while experimenting with how printed type and images create a broader story beyond the surface meaning of the page’s words and pictures.
Prepared to push the boundaries of language with the use of profanity, levy also printed material like this ‘wanted’ poster of a drug squad chief offering a pound of grass to anyone who spiked him with a huge dose of acid. Unsurprisingly it wasn’t too long before the Ohio authorities turned its attention on the Cleveland underground and, in particular, levy. In autumn 1966 levy was secretly indicted by a Grand Jury for distributing obscene material, made public in January of the following year when he and Jim Lowell were arrested. levy was re-arrested three months later for giving his publications to a pair of teenagers at a reading.
Progressives saw the prosecution as an attack on freedom of speech, numerous benefit performances organised across the US aiding the defence costs with Allen Ginsberg and The Fugs appearing at a Cleveland fundraiser. The poet and publisher T. L. Kryss created the poetry compendium A Tribute to Jim Lowell as a fundraiser, containing verse from Olson, Ferlinghetti, Denise Levertov, Charles Bukowski and Cunliffe alongside anti-censorship messages. The charges were eventually dismissed in 1968 but not before the court impounded and then destroyed levy’s printing press.
It seems significant that over just a few months within the mid-1960s interconnected figures within the British and US avant-garde were charged with various forms of obscenity – levy in the US, Cunliffe in Blackburn, Gustav Metzger and John Sharkey in London (for a performance within their Destruction in Art Symposium, DIAS). In retrospect these actions seem significant; perhaps the initial sparring between a new liberalism appearing on both sides of the Atlantic and authorities shocked by its arrival, prepared to meet it with all the force at its disposal. levy died in 1968 of a gunshot wound to the head which a number of people at the time believed to be state-sponsored murder, giving levy a brief period as an underground martyr figure; it is striking how in a number of photographs levy resembles a cross between a young Che Guevara and traditional images of Christ. It later transpired that levy often talked of killing himself, his suicide not a shock to close friends but robbing the world of a fascinating poet whose influence is yet to be fully explored.
Now that the contents of the Dave Cunliffe Papers are listed I can confirm that it holds a substantial amount of material related to d a levy and Cleveland’s poetic underground. This includes 9 issues of levy’s Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle and 2 copies of The Tibetan Stroboscope – one signed for Cunliffe and Morris. The archive also contains levy’s poetry pamphlets Tombstone as a Lonely Charm (Runcible Spoon), The Beginning of Sunny Dawn (Open Skull), To be a Discrepancy in Cleveland (Radical America), Suburban Monastery Death Poem (Zero editions) and 3 One Act Plays co-authored with Kirby Congdon and Carl Larsen (Hors Commerce Press). It also holds material from Freelance, Renegade, Ghost Press and 7 Flowers presses and runs of local countercultural publications including The Cuyahoga Current, Great Swamp Erie da da Boom and Kaleidoscope. This almost certainly represents the largest collection of d a levy/ Cleveland poetic underground material on this side of the Atlantic.