- Richard Hell, Genesis: Grasp, and the Blank Generation: From Poetry to Punk in New York's Lower East Side
As we read through various interviews with punk rock icon Richard Hell and Hell's own published work as a poet and novelist, we might very well be struck by the way writers including Gérard de Nerval, Arthur Rimbaud, Antonin Artaud, Dylan Thomas, and Ted Berrigan appear alongside references to 1960s garage bands like the Count Five or proto-punk groups like the New York Dolls. Such diversity of reference suggests that there might be a connection between Hell's roles in the late sixties and early seventies as a small-magazine publisher and poet and his later contribution to punk in New York, despite Hell's refusal at times to conflate two ostensibly generically distinct art forms. 1 As I will argue [End Page 330] here, Hell can be credited in part for imbuing punk rock with a markedly literary aura that has informed histories of the music from Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1989), to Legs McNeil's and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (1996), to Bernard Gendron's Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club: Popular Music and the Avant-Garde (2002). 2 I want to read that aura around the music as one which inevitably complicates any attempts to mark clear divisions between a poem on the page and a performed song, between club space and poetry-reading space, between "high art" and the mass market. 3
What, after all, were New York's musical and literary avant-gardes doing in terms of negotiating the spaces between the underground and the purported mainstream? Poets of the 1960s and 1970s valued and romanticized an underground economy based in part on decentralized production and distribution. Recalling the "mimeograph revolution" that found writers including Amiri Baraka, Diane di Prima, and Ed Sanders publishing their and their friends' work in any number of cheaply produced, hand-stapled journals, poet Anne Waldman (herself an editor of a number of mimeos including The World, a journal attached to the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church) enthused, "We were already drawn to underground 'autonomous zones,' tender beauties of small press production" (xxi). Waldman highlights the "modest" production values of the magazine and points more generally to values attendant on the mimeograph revolution, such as autonomy, low cost, marginalization in the "underground," and independence from the constraints of the traditional publishing and bookstore industries. Comments like Waldman's suggest that the poetry scene at the time was at least [End Page 331] attempting to inscribe itself as "a self-consciously avant-garde project, a quasi-Marxist utopia where the cultural workers [were] in control of the forms of production" (Kane 347).
Thus any number of poets not willing to wait around to be published by the likes of The Kenyon Review or The New Yorker simply started their own presses using cheap and widely available mimeograph and tabletop offset printing presses. Mailing lists of friends, friends of friends, and favored artists made up these poets' audiences, supplemented by the multitude of poetry performances taking place in coffee shops, including Les Deux Mégots, Le Metro, and the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church. The poet Ted Berrigan summarized this "do it yourself" approach to publication and distribution with singular whimsy. Describing his own mimeographed publishing venture, C magazine, and his efforts to publish poets Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch in it, Berrigan asserted:
[T]here were these four people, and when I first came to New York . . . from Oklahoma . . . I was very interested in these four people. . . . There weren't many people that were interested in those four people. . . . so I got very interested in them. They seemed to me to open up a lot of possibilities. Then someone asked me if I wanted to edit a magazine. So I said, "Sure!" My plan for that magazine was to publish these four people in conjunction with four or five younger people, myself and people that I knew. . . . And I put them...