Poet Ted Berrigan, who founded the mimeographed zine C: A Journal of Poetry, would hold court in front of Gem Spa smoking unfiltered Chesterfields and while surrounded by younger poets such as Andrei Codrescu.
Mimeo publications circulated among an interconnected group of artists working in a variety of mediums. The mailing list for Diane di Prima and LeRoi Jones’s semi-monthly newsletter The Floating Bear was a who’s who of the underground poetry, film, visual art, and Off-Off-Broadway worlds, which facilitated artistic and personal exchanges between these audiences on the page as well as in person. The only way to get a copy of their stapled poetry zine was to know someone who worked on it, and Andy Warhol’s name was likely added to the mailing list through his association with printing assistant and poet Gerard Malanga. Soon after the artist received an issue of The Floating Bear that described one of the “haircut parties” held in Billy Linich’s glimmering Lower East Side apartment, Andy began shooting his Haircut movies. Linich performed typing and collating tasks for The Floating Bear until he had a falling-out with di Prima, so he shifted allegiances to Andy Warhol’s Factory scene and became known as Billy Name. Ted Berrigan got to know Ed Sanders through these mimeo zines, which anticipated the kinds of back and forth that occur on today’s social media platforms. They often contained gossip and announcements about what was going on downtown, which was another way Warhol and others kept their ear to the ground. They also shared images via mimeo publications, like the time Warhol provided Sanders with the cover for an issue of Fuck You (a black-and-white frame from his 1964 movie Couch). Poet Ted Berrigan recalled, “There got to be groups, because there were a lot of people . . . because we had a magazine—that’s how you get a group, I think, you start a magazine.” The zines were distributed on the streets, via mail, and in select bookstores that served as important hubs in the downtown’s social networks.
From Chapter 5 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Ed Sanders met many interesting and prominent people during this time, but nothing compared to the thrill of befriending Allen Ginsberg, who lived on the Lower East Side. “When I was first exploring New York City in 1958 and 1959,” Sanders enthused, “I never thought in a cycle of centuries that I’d ever become friends with such a hero.” He first met Ginsberg in front of Gem Spa, a newsstand located on St. Mark’s Place that sold chocolate egg creams for a quarter. St. Mark’s Place was a three-block street that terminated on its east side at Avenue A, in front of Tompkins Square Park, and to the west of Second Avenue it turned into East Eighth Street—a major throughway to Greenwich Village. Gem Spa was a popular hangout, where poet Ted Berrigan held court, smoking unfiltered Chesterfields while surrounded by younger poets such as Andrei Codrescu. “It was my first time staying in New York and I’m having a wonderful extraterrestrial floating experience,” Codrescu recalled. “I saw Ted outside Gem Spa, and I just rushed him and said, ‘Ted, I’m on acid!’ And Ted just looked at me and he said, ‘Yeah. I always wondered how it would feel to kill somebody on acid.’ And I just thought it was the greatest, most wonderful thing to say. I just followed him around like a puppy for the rest of the day.” (Berrigan also founded his own mimeographed zine, C: A Journal of Poetry.)
Patti Smith had been interested in doing public poetry readings, though she was wary of many of the poets’ staid, practiced delivery. In the early 1970s, Beat poet Gregory Corso started taking her to readings hosted by the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, a collective based at the same church where Theatre Genesis was located. It was home to A-listers like Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, and Ted Berrigan, but Corso was less than reverent. He heckled certain poets during their listless performances, yelling, “Shit! Shit! No blood! Get a transfusion!” Sitting at Corso’s side, Smith made a mental note not to be boring if she ever had a chance to read her poems in public. On February 10, 1971, Gerard Malanga was scheduled to do a reading at the Poetry Project and he agreed to let Smith open for him. Her collaborations with Shepard taught her to infuse her words with rhythm, and she sought out other ideas about how to disrupt the traditional poetry reading format. For the St. Mark’s event, Sam Shepard suggested that Smith add music—which reminded her that Lenny Kaye played guitar. “She wanted to shake it up, poetry-wise, and she did,” said Kaye, who recalled that it was primarily a solo poetry reading, with occasional guitar accompaniment. “I started it with her,” he said. “We did ‘Mack the Knife,’ because it was Bertolt Brecht’s birthday, and then I came back for the last three musical pieces.” Setting chords to her melodic chanting, Kaye recalled that she was easy to follow because of her strong sense of rhythmic movement. “I hesitate to call them ‘songs,’ but in a sense they were the essence of what we would pursue.”
From Chapter 25 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore