Overweening Generalist

Sunday, October 9, 2011

October 9, 1975: Actualism in Action!

On this date in 1975, "Dr. Alphabet's Poetry City Marathon" took place. Actualist Dave Morice "composed a poem of paper taped around a city block, sideshows were performed by the Ducksbreath Mystery Theater & the Blake Street Hawkeyes..."

I hadn't known anything about the poetry movement of Actualism until I read about it in my friend Jack Foley's 1284 page (in 2 large vols) Visions and Affiliations, an immense chronicle of West Coast poetry and art (mostly poetry) from 1940 to 2005. The quote in the first paragraph above is from p.457 of Vol I. Foley's books are staggeringly compendious; nothing like this has ever been done regarding West Coast poetry from 1940, and very likely never will be done again. If you want to know about the history of California poetry from the second half of the 20th century until...recently, this is The Real Deal. His erudite yet delightfully readable cover-to-cover to cover-to-cover chronicle of the poetry scene in California is subtitled "A California Literary Time Line: Poets and Poetry." For me, it's been a veritable education. One looks at these two volumes and, after saying "Wow," "Just...wow!," one wonders how anyone could have accomplished such a feat, and I imagine I'd've needed roughly 17 million 3x5 note cards...

So back to Actualism. (For the goods, see Vol 1 of Visions and Affiliations, pp.452-458) It appears to be a sort of melange of Dada, Groucho Marxism, and street theater. It started around April of 1970, and held annual conventions that were free, although after a while they charged 50 cents per day. They were "annual" but no one is sure how many were held. It was centered in Berkeley and San Francisco...and a few other places. It appears to have begun in Iowa City, but I guess that's another story.

One of the chief Actualists was Darrel Gray, who wrote in an essay "What Is Actualism?":

"I want to emphasize that Actualism is not an aesthetic 'movement' in the usual sense of the word. It owes nothing to literary history that it could not find elsewhere, least of all aesthetic theory or literary criticism...Actualists are serious about their art...But most of them would agree with what Nietzsche said on the matter: 'Maturity is a return to the seriousness of the child at play.'"
-pp.21-22 of Gray's Essays and Dissolutions. Found in Foley, p.455, op.cit

                                         Vol 2 of "Vis-Aff" by Jack Foley, aided and abetted by Adelle Foley
                                                                          Quite a work! 

Here's one guy who was part of Actualism that you may know: Andrei Codrescu. Actualists had often urged a "calculated naivete," but Codrescu wrote:

                                     ...Revolution. The word is like a revolver on a 
                                      sunlit window sill.
                                      It is one of the few words that sets
                                      my heart on fire. Girl also sets my heart on fire.
                                      Girl & Revolution. Revolution & Girl.
                                      I am twelve years old and I intend to stay that way.
                                     -"Sunday Sermon," Codrescu, Selected Poems


At (probably?) the first Actualist convention the price of admission was "spontaneity." Instead of chairs lined up in perfect little rows, you came in and found all the chairs heaped in a large pile in the middle of the stage. You could visit the Actualist Museum, which featured a jar of peanut butter, and the Olfactory Factory, which was jars of mysterious odors. If you won the door prize, you were awarded an actual door.

One Actualist, Joyce Holland, started her own Actualist poetry magazine, called Matchbook. You could subscribe, but you might have trouble receiving your copy. You see, Matchbook was actually printed on a matchbook with tiny pages stapled to the front cover. The post office made her wrap the issue in aluminum foil. And it seemed every poet in America was an Actualist. Matchbook was the first magazine to feature one-word poems. In another Actualist magazine, Life of Crime, in the "Volume: Actualism / Number: Shmactualism," the mysterious Holland's birthday is given as April Eighth, because that's the first day of the year, if you decide to alphabetize month/day.

Many Actualist readings/theater were held, but if for some reason you were deemed to be using too much time, you got the hook, just like an old vaudeville act. Indeed, Actualist "writing events" appeared on the old TV shows Tomorrow (with Tom Snyder) and The Gong Show.


By the end of the 1970s the disparate bands of Actualists realized they had some disagreements, and the movement splintered into "punks" and far more serious L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets.

Foley doesn't link the Actualists to the Discordian Society or the Church of the Subgenius, but they all seem of a piece to me: brilliant, irreverent, anarchist humor and creativity, a branch of political satire and dissent, a marginal space for a certain type of artistic weirdo. In other words, something of the best in the American character.

In closing, I'd like to quote Actualist Joyce Holland:

                                     Wex fendible whask
                                     optera caffing, thatora!


                                    Neppcor-inco fendision
                                                   ubble snop!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

You're doing great work. Thank you & Kind regards, M. Whittington

michael said...

@M.Whittington: Thanks! You're a part of my nervous system. A good part.