The Diverse Desires of a Fallen Angel

Robert Frost is alleged to have said, when told that there were thousands of poets writing in America, that there have not been thousands of poets since the beginning of time. I have been unable to verify that it was Frost who said this, or if indeed it was ever said by anyone, other than me. Nevertheless I have always used it to contrast with the hundreds if not thousands of would-be poets who exploded on the American literary scene beginning with the beatniks in the 1950s.

Smitten as I was in the 1970s by Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski and other members of the Beat Generation, and lucky as I felt to be living in Detroit when Dudley Randall, a fellow librarian, was going strong with his Broadside Press, publishing the works of angry black writers at the forefront of the civil rights movement, I began my own modest publishing outfit called Fallen Angel Press. No sooner had I named it than I began receiving letters and manuscripts from writers who were certain that I would be interested in their writing about the occult. I wasn’t. The fallen angel was not Lucifer, it was me, angelic boy turned hippy.

I bought a proof press, a massive contraption that was once used by printers to pull a proof after type had been hand set. Setting type was an arduous process, through which I produced a Christmas card, a bookmark containing a poem called “Bloodletting Is Beautiful” by a friend named Roberta Greifer, and a book by a college friend, Michael Scott-Burke, called No Closed Parentheses. From that ink-splattered experience, I learned that I did not want to be a printer, I wanted to be a publisher.

I decided early on that I wanted to publish the works of a diverse set of poets. I wrote a press release announcing that I was looking for poets to publish. At first it was friends whose work I published: Margaret Kaminski’s La Vida de la Mujer, Guy Veryzer’s The Male Whore’s Song. I cast my net a little wider with Michigan authors Lee Upton, Small Locks, and Rosa Maria Arenas, She Said Yes. I got to know Lawrence Pike and published his Hideout Matinees. The responses came flooding in–not purchase orders, mind you, responses. From unsolicited submissions, I chose A.D. Winans’ All the Graffiti on All the Bathroom Walls of the World Can’t Hide These Scars, Helen Duberstein’s The Voyage Out, E.G. Burrows’ On the Road to Bailey’s, and Lynn Strongin’s Toccata of the Disturbed Child. Without really planning it, I had published authors who were gay, Jewish, and African American, Latina, along with straight WASP white men and women.

Veryzer’s book caused a brief stir when objections poured into the Michigan Council for the Arts over a small grant that helped pay for its publication. A call came to me at work at the Detroit Public Library from the MCA, just to inform me that I had stirred up a little controversy. I mostly ignored it.

Then came Melba Joyce Boyd and her book Cat Eyes and Dead Wood, to be illustrated by her friend Michele Gibbs Russell. Today, Amazon describes the books to potential buyers this way: “Uncommon African American book which contains some previously published poems. This collaborative work is the first publication by two African American women activists–a writer and an illustrator, both residents of Detroit. Rear cover has photographs of them.”

I did not think of Melba and Michele as activists; I knew only that Melba was a protegee of the now legendary Dudley Randall, whose Broadside Press was an inspiration to me, Dudley being a writer, librarian, and publisher–all that I aspired to. I was thrilled to think that I could publish a book that might be as significant as his books by Nikki Giovanni and Gwendolyn Brooks and Etheridge Knight and Haki Madhubuti (known then as Don L. Lee). I tried hard to be a real editor, going over every line of Melba’s poetry and offering suggestions for changes. I convinced her to change the word “switch” to “swish” when she was talking about a sissy walk. I convinced her that “deadwood” should be two words. On reflection, I am not sure I was right about any of the changes she made. Michele scooped up her copies of the book at our book party in the Scarab Club and disappeared into some Caribbean island. Melba, on the other hand, has gone on to a brilliant career in academia, with a biography of Dudley Randall to her credit: Wrestling with the Muse: Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press.

Fallen Angel Press was costing me money and beginning to feel like a full-time job, which I already had at the Detroit Public Library. Having ignored Dudley Randall’s early advice to treat publishing like a business, I lost money and moved on. It wasn’t until I began working for the American Library Association in 1988 that I understood what it meant to “treat it like a business.”

Blessedly, I was working in the library’s Language & Literature Department. My supervisor and one of the most well-read people I have ever met, Ann Rabjohns, promptly put me in charge of developing the department’s research-level poetry collection. Soon, I invented the “High Noon” poetry series, featuring local poets reading from their work during the lunch hour, with attendees invited to bring their “brown bag” lunches and munch as they listened. With the co-sponsorship of the English Department at Wayne State University and the help of Professor Stephen Tudor (himself a poet), we had remarkable success with that program, sometimes filling the Explorer’s Room to its 100-person capacity.

PRC and Michigan Poetry Festival

During that delightful period in Detroit, WSU and the Detroit Institute of Arts brought many poets to town for programs, including many who later became as famous as a poet can get in America. I remember in particular Philip Levine and Charles Simic, who both later became poets laureate of the United States, as did Louise Gluck, whose work made me feel, as Emily Dickinson said poetry should, “physically as if the top of my head were taken off.”

With Henrietta Epstein and Sol Lachman, we founded the Poetry Resource Center of Michigan, first located in Greektown and later in Royal Oak. We sponsored numerous readings by local poets. Once a year we held the Michigan Poetry Festival and issued the Michigan Poetry Sampler featuring poems from what we determined were the ten best books of the year by Michigan poets. For the Festival, we brought in many successful writers from around the country, including Gerald Stern and Clarence Major.

Between Greektown and Royal Oak, Henrietta, Sol and I went shopping for a building on the so-called Avenue of Fashion, Livernois in Detroit. Businesses were flocking to the burbs, leaving buildings shuttered and plastered with “For Sale” signs. We made an appointment to see one, and the eager seller with a rather thick unidentifiable accent gave us a guided tour through a building that would have required a lot of elbow grease. We explained to him that we wanted to open a Poetry Center. He nodded and continued the tour at the end of which he turned to us and asked, “And how many chickens would you have?”

Momentarily perplexed, we suddenly realized that he was willing to sell us this building on the Avenue of Fashion to open a Poultry Center.

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