In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating, honoring, and advocating for the important contributions of women in our neighborhoods. And today we’re highlighting the innovative work of women poets in the mid-century mimeograph revolution.
As Rona Cran writes in “Space Occupied: Women Poet-Editors and the Mimeograph Revolution in Mid-Century New York City,” the downtown poetry scene was “less a site of primarily male subjectivity and naturally-occuring genius (as tends to be implied) than part of a self-creating process powered by the (often hidden) editorial and organizational labor of women.”
At the middle of the twentieth century, the increased availability of mimeograph machines made it easier for poets to produce and circulate books, magazines, and other publications. The machines cost around $50, and due to their physical unwieldiness were often located in shared spaces such as bookstores, libraries, or print co-ops. The shared, public mimeograph locations “enabled a variety of people to come and go, printing flyers, political handouts, posters, and of course, books, pamphlets, and little magazines.” This historical moment came to be called the “mimeo revolution,” for the way that the mimeograph democratized publishing, while creating poetic community and a do-it-yourself ethos. Women poets, though often overlooked or overshadowed in the downtown poetry community, were crucial in this social and creative power of the mimeograph revolution.
Cran points out that while the “now-legendary bars, cafes, and bookstores on the Lower East Side and its surrounds” such as the Cedar Tavern, Peace Eye bookstore, and Les Deux Megots, were critically important to the development of the downtown poetry scene, so too were the domestic spaces associated with the mimeo revolution. Hettie Jones, Diane DiPrima, Anne Waldman, and Maureen Owen, among many other innovative women poets, used their apartments as ad-hoc gathering spaces for the mimeo parties, producing the acclaimed literary magazines Yugen, The Floating Bear, Angel Hair, and Telephone, respectively.
Diane DiPrima / Floating Bear
Poet and Villager Diane DiPrima wrote in the 1971 edition of her Revolutionary Letters, ‘this is a free book. These are free poems and may be reprinted anywhere by anyone… Power to the people’s mimeo machines!”
DiPrima saw the mimeo revolution as a vehicle through which to push the boundaries of what was known as “womens’ writing.” The American novelist Gilbert Sorrentino critiqued DiPrima’s writing by calling her, “sometimes the equivalent of a ‘wiseguy,’” while suggesting that she is “too concerned maybe, with not being a ‘lady writer’…”
DiPrima was the editor of the mimeographed newsletter entitled The Floating Bear. It was distributed by mailing lists; its goal was to “speedily disseminate new literary work”. The newsletter began in 1961 and was co-edited by Di Prima’s partner LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka). In total twenty-five issues came out in the magazine’s first two years. DiPrima recalls, “In the winter of 1961-62, we held gatherings at my East Fourth Street pad every other Sunday [to print the magazine]. Whole bunches of people would come over to help: painters, musicians….”
The overtly Leftist political content of The Floating Bear was often provocative. In 1961, the editors sent the ninth issue of their newsletter to a friend incarcerated in a New Jersey prison, and a censor reading inmates’ mail deemed the publication obscene. On October 18, 1961, the editors were arrested on an obscenity charge, but ultimately the court did not return an indictment.
Anne Waldman / The World
Anne Waldman, East Village resident and director of the Poetry Project at St. Marks’ Church-in-the-Bowery, was the co-founder of notable small press and magazine Angel Hair, which we’ve covered elsewhere on our blog. While at the Poetry Project she also edited a magazine called The World, which ran until 2002 but originated during the mimeo revolution in January 1967. It featured cover illustrations from artists and poets like Joe Brainard, John Giorno, and Rosemary Mayer (sister of Bernadette Mayer, the legendary New York School / L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet who also worked at the Project).
Waldman describes The World as a “pilot project” for the still-in-formation poetic community at the Poetry Project. After the recent death of Frank O’Hara in fall of 1966, Waldman realized it was a “critical time” for the community, and was inspired to embark on a new publication.
The poet Ted Berrigan praised Waldman’s contributions: “It seems she can do anyhting, and does. The poetry magazines she edits, Angel Hair and The World… are the best poetry magazines in America. In them, one finds some of the best writing being done in America… Anne [brought] together a diverse and vital selection of talented people, and makes it all work as the community that the poetry world really is today.”
Echoing DiPrima’s fond recollections of mimeo gatherings in her apartment, Waldman describes, “Joel Sloman [a younger poet and coworker of Waldman’s] … sent out stencils to our desired contributors in mailing tubes that were to be returned with hot-from-the-muse in-progress works”. Then we’d have a collation party the next day with the heavy duty stapler.”
The final products were often imperfect, but Waldman, like other poets of the movement, embraced the imperfection. “The overinked paper,” she says, “had a certain charm…”