- Off-Beat Books
Ed Sanders is a poet of considerable depth, talent, and historical concern, as reflected in his endlessly panoramic poem America (2000-2004). An early acolyte of the Beats, he had memorized "Howl" (1956) as an undergraduate.
He is also our leading living exponent of what Russians prior to Gorbachev called samizdat. In the time when all publication was controlled by a state party apparatus, writing was circulated clandestinely in mimeograph format, i.e., illegally and underground. The antecedent for this was the earliest handwritten newsletters in France in the eighteenth century, spreading the gossip of court scandals and then the news that led to a revolution: The French word for news, "nouvelle," becomes our generic label for fiction.
The delicious gossip in Sanders's book leavens his serious intent: Janis Joplin introducing television journalist Dick Cavett to oral sex; actress Sharon Tate's reputed involvement (according to Dennis Hopper) in a sadomasochistic group before the Manson murders; Jack Kerouac characteristically jotting on a notepad at the moment before the blood began gurgling in his throat in 1969.
Fug You presents a record of the years from 1963 to 1969, a period during which Sanders subordinated poetry for the circus of rock 'n roll and the principle of free speech. This is the era between the assassinations of the two Kennedy brothers when some Americans, perhaps romantically or at least much too optimistically, expected world values were actually changing as rapidly as technology and in a more progressive direction.
Born just at the beginning of World War II, Sanders was raised in Missouri farm country at a moment when farmers started selling their land to real estate developers who built the suburbs around Kansas City. In New York City, he studied classics and Egyptian hieroglyphics at NYU. Its high tuition was waived because of his job in purchasing (NYU, ironically, was in the process of purchasing as much of lower Manhattan as it could acquire).
Married, with an infant daughter, Sanders lived on the Lower East Side in a time of thirty-dollar-a-month rentals in an apartment he painted black. An "unself-confident egomaniac" (alluding to the opening lines of Kerouac's The Subterraneans ) Sanders placed a small Speed-o-Print mimeograph machine on the porcelain cover of the kitchen washtub.
The process began with a typed stencil, with hand drawings illuminated from behind by a flashlight, and the tedious chemistry of correction fluid. Then he would print, collate and hand staple hundreds of copies of each issue of a publication he flamboyantly called Fuck You / A Magazine of the Arts, which he gave away for free. So its cost was a matter of a writer's dedicated effort and passion and that commitment would seem to be a signal of anomaly in a culture concerned primarily with acquisition and money.
An avant-garde voice of the underground, the motto of FY was William Burroughs's philosophy of "total assault on the culture." Sanders began sending it to Europeans like Beckett, Picasso, and Sartre, and to Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and other American poets he admired. The enterprise suggests a perennial model for young writers: start a lively publication, keep it alive, and you may realize a life in print.
I lived on the Lower East Side in the early '60s and was impressed by Sanders's intentness when I saw him read at Café Metro or at The Living Theatre event to raise funds for the jailed poet Ray Bremser. Sanders looked like a Mark Twain cherub, a curleyhead standing so straight, stiff, a soldier of somber, self-contained anger. But Fug You is by the only "Beatnik who can yodel." It is full of a playfulness that also characterizes an era full of idiosyncratic absurdities—like Sanders's memory of filmmaker Ron Rice rushing into a party naked, flinging a cat at Tiny Tim singing with his high pitched "skyscraper voice" while strumming his ukulele.
Fug You is organized chronologically but often feels more like a scrapbook than a...