Brandon Stosuy, a writer for Pitchfork the online music magazine and frequent contributor to The Believer, has compiled a mammoth and graphically rich retrospective of underground writing from New York’s downtown during the heyday of photocopiers, 1974 to 1992. The collection includes dozens of selections from writers such as Sharon Mesmer, Thurston Moore, David Byrne, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Lori Anderson, Spalding Grey, Kathy Acker, Lynn Tillman, and Dennis Cooper.
Stosuy defines downtown literature within geographical boundaries, production limitations, and a specific aesthetic. The work was produced by poets, writers, and performance artists living below 14th Street, covering Tribeca to the lower east side. The work was generally self-financed and often produced with accessible technology such as photocopy machines. “Keeping eyes firmly focused on the muck,” downtown writers created works that “breathed freely and remained connected significantly to the everyday.”
The work presented in the anthology was often composed, published, distributed, and often read within Stosuy’s defined boundaries. It’s fresh to have an anthology organized around such a tight geographical ring. Work produced in Brooklyn or Hoboken isn’t found here nor is work produced within the demarcation lines that bleed over into the wider world through the traditional channels of New York Publishing.
Pawing through the phonebook-sized volume, there are numerous spreads and reproductions of handbills, posters, and limited edition chapbooks. The flood of handmade publications followed the rise of punk in New York alongside the already entrenched visual art and poetry scenes, which had already experienced connections with literary practice during movements such as Fluxus or Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine. Cross-discipline collaboration had also been a long part of New York’s art world. With punk, though, came a sense that merely creating an object or a manuscript wasn’t enough, but that this creation must also involve getting the work in front of a willing (or unwilling) audience. Simultaneously, photocopy machines became widespread allowing cheap production. For a generation of self-publishers, the Xerox machine became a gateway drug. Using a photocopy machine, a poet could produce a reasonably professional looking copy without the fuss or smell of a mimeograph machine with its caustic ink and stencils. A photocopy machine is just a piece of glass that transforms anything pressed against it into a stark, black, and white image. Reproduction legitimizes scrawls, handwriting, typewriting, and collage. After a few Xeroxed chapbooks, a DIY novelist or poet could begin to consider the more expensive proposition of producing an offset book.
Up is Up But So is Down displays the evolution from the hand drawn and typewriter texts of the seventies to the early typeset texts of the mid-1980s, to the full desktop published books of the early nineties. In between, a few throwback publications make their appearance such as Between C&D, produced on a nine-pin dot matrix computer printer, embracing the high tech/low tech of early word processors. These old printers printed paper on a continuous roll with the left, and right margins attached to a strip of paper with holes used by the printer to advance the paper across the ink head. A finished issue of Between C&D was a thin stack of attached pages placed in a zip log bag (like a dime bag.)
The anthology almost exclusively covers the confessional narrative. This is the same style used by William Burroughs in his first two books in the 1950s, Queer (not published until 1984) and Junky, and is the style-of-choice for jailed bank robbers and death row inmates. These are often hard-boiled, mostly naturalistic tales of urban life, often juxtaposing “shocking” material with mundane slice-of-life. The style seems deliberately flat and easily executed in order not to detract from the edginess of the lives being documented. Frequently these stories deal with poverty, vice, or transgressive relationships.
Barbara Ess’ tale from 1983, “This is it?” contains a typical paragraph:
I went back to the place I was staying–a small room in the artist’s studio that reeked of the polyurethane casts of men’s penises that were manufactured there. I was thinking of the first penis I had ever seen. It was when I was member of The Meatballs and Spaghetti Club, which met behind the garage down the hill from where I lived. There were three members: me, Richie R., and Kenny. We would make our genitals available for perusal until the club was busted as we all got punished.
On one hand, such a basic formal schematic makes the work sound superficial and unserious. In this case, the anthology serves as a natural history of the hipster, post-psychedelic and pre-geek. The gesture of cool is far more important in the majority of pieces than narrative innovation or literary trickery. This is not to say they aren’t committed to their writing, but writing style, and lifestyle often seem just as important. As so-called serious writers continue to move into the staid, professional lives of academic positions, it becomes clear that nothing is as square (in the 1950s sense of the word) as a tenure track MFA instructor in their obligatory tweeds or gradually ill-fitting hipster gear. It is refreshing to find page after page of writers whose writing has little do with their source of income.
While the book is able to create a clear definition of what is downtown lit, and find more than enough compelling work to create a three-decade history, the book begs the question, “Is this kind of work is limited to New York?” Stosuy doesn’t address the question. Michael Azerrad’s book, Our Band Can Be Your Life finds significant DIY scenes in over a dozen cities including Portland, Olympia, San Francisco, LA, Washington DC, Minneapolis, and Athens. While the peculiar blend of big time visual art, early punk, and performance art created a peculiar brew of writer, similar environments fueled by the sixties counter-culture, mimeograph and then photocopy machines, were flowering across America during this same period. Even writers in this collection such as Dennis Cooper and Kathy Acker belong as much to West Coast scenes or movements as they do to New York.
In any case, this is a kind of three-decade book celebrating the possibilities of a self-sufficient writing community right under the nose of the decaying, increasingly irrelevant empire of New York Publishing.
(Review published in The American Book Review this last summer.)