Michael Lally

In 1969 I moved to Washington, DC to teach at Trinity College. Actually my pregnant wife, Lee, and I and our baby daughter moved to Hyattsville. We moved inside the DC city limits a few years later. I was 27, and after four years in the service, I had gone to the Iowa Writers Workshop on the GI bill where I graduated with an MFA in poetry and the only job I was offered was the Trinity gig. I was heavily involved at the time in the antiwar and civil rights movements and had some poems coming out in a Bobbs Merril anthology called Campfires of the Resistence. I also had a couple of chapbooks coming out from small presses and had published widely in small mags, like the then new ones, Salt Lick, Hey Lady et. al and more academically literary ones, like the Massachusetts Review, Tri-Quarterly et al. I published in the latter mostly to show my Iowa classmates and myself that I could do it, but it was the small mags coming out of the various alternative poetry scenes around the country that I identified with. In Iowa City I had started POETRY OF THE PEOPLE, an alternative poetry service modeled on the then widely distributed Liberation News Service, the alternative to the UPI and AP wire services. I sent it out to all the underground and alternative newspapers and publications around the country on mimeo and they would use whatever they chose to. Among my friends at the time, were the more established poets, Ted Berrigan of the second generation New York School, and Etheridge Knight of the new Black literary movement of the '60s, as well as classmates from Iowa like Ray DiPalma, Alice Notley, et. al. On first arriving in DC I was told I was about to win an award that had been set up under the Johnson administration and was associated with what would become the NEA and its grants. But when I got to the cocktail party given in honor of the recipients, my hosts were dismayed that I was white. They had taken me for African-American by my writing and had intended the award for a nonwhite or "minority" so, they took it back. The poets I met at that cocktail party were part of the then DC poetry scene, mostly older white professors from local universities and colleges, several of whom met at an invitation-only salon to read their poems to each other in one of their living rooms. I was invited to join them, but when I did I felt out of place. Some of the work was very good, but it had little in common with mine, it was much more cautious and traditional and academic, or what was academic at that time. I was the only long haired one there, with a street background and African-American influenced style, etc. The Beat era coffee house and art gallery reading scene was long gone and the only other reading venues I turned up were the more formal readings at the local schools and at the Library of Congress at which the usual old white men read, with the occasional older white woman. When John Ciardi read at the Library of Congress and started fuming against what he saw as the uneducated attacks on "the tradition" by the "underground" poetry scene, I stood up and challenged him, politely I thought, but others didn't, offering the view that perhaps there was room for a lot of different kinds of poetry and poetry audiences, etc. I put my actions where my mouth was and invited poets like Knight and Berrigan and his then wife Alice Notley to read at Trinity in a series I started there that became extremely popular. I also organized a reading for Campfires of the Resistence when it came out in 1971, and out of that reading, which was standing room only and filled with the alternative audience I was looking for, and after I had helped David Marcuse with the Community Book Store he started, on M Street first, if I remember correctly and then moved to P Street off Dupont Circle, where there was an upstairs room that was used for meetings of antiwar organizers etc. and I took it one night a week and started a poetry reading series which one of the first guys to join suggested we call Mass Transit (I cant remember his name, he didn't stick around). The rules I created for Mass Transit were meant to create an atmosphere where I might find like minded writers. First of all the readings were open to anyone, but they had to read their own work, or at least the work of someone who was present, could read no more than five minutes and no one could comment on what anyone else read. We sat, or lounged, mostly on the floor, in a circle. We took up a collection for drinks (and maybe snacks too I donut remember that) and someone would volunteer to go out and them. Out of this series, I began to discover and encourage local poets, who I had more in common with than the local academics. Because some of these readers often were tentative about claiming their poet status, I started the small publishing group Some of Us Press, with my wife and some of the more experienced regulars, like Terence Winch. We put out one chapbook a month, advertised through a mailing list, and began with my South Orange Sonnets, which went through several printings before officially being out of print so we could concentrate on the books of others. We published the first books of Bruce Andrews, Tim Dlugos, Terence Winch, Lee Lally, Lynne Dreyer, Simon Schuchat, et al. Mass Transit, because of its location and association with the Community Bookstore, and the community it served, was a well mixed group spanning several generations, the youngest were in their teens and the oldest, as far as I knew was in his seventies, and it was about equally male/female with gays and lesbians and African-Americans and several handicapped poets as regulars. One of the great local African-American poets who was a regular was Ahmos Zu-Bolton. Some of Us Press was a separate entity, and because I had had my "consciousness raised" as they said back then, by feminism and the gay movement, it was run as a collective with all decisions being unanimous. So some of the poets we discovered were not published by the press due to one member or another's objections. nonetheless, the press sold out most of the early chapbooks, reprinting several. Someone, I think it was Ed Zhaniser, started a magazine Mass Transit to publish some of the work at the readings. I had done an earlier mimeo and later Xeroxed version of the mag. But eventually Winch edited the first in a series of regular issues of the mag. Once a month or so Mass Transit was devoted to a reading by only two poets, one from the local scene, like Ed Cox a local gay poet and member of the SOUP collective, and one I would invite from out of town, like Kenward Elmslie. I'm not sure that combination actually happened, but I know both of them did read in that series. I donut remember the pairings. Bruce Andrews, who I had met at the bookstore and got into an instant discussion of the new jazz and the New York school poetry scene with, and what would become known as the "language" centered school of poetry, had an indirect influence on the DC scene. I had written work of that kind (some of which appeared in several chapbooks from various presses from 1970 on, as well as in my first big collection, Rocky Dies Yellow in 1975) and had first encountered others who did at Iowa, like Ray DiPalma and Robert Grenier. DiPalma was also one of the poets I brought to DC to read in the early '70s. I also ran a more formal series of readings at the Pyramid Gallery further down P Street where I did the same thing of combining a local poet with one from out of town, John Ashbery say and Terence Winch. Though, again, I cant recall the exact pairings. At any rate, there were local poets who took up the language centered style writing, one of whom was a student of mine at Trinity College, Tina Darragh, where I taught the work of the French poet Francis Ponge among others, and where she blossomed as a writer of profound commitment and later started her own magazine with another regular of Mass Transit peter Inman.

By 1974, after my own personal changes, which included separating from my wife and the lesbian feminist collective that the commune we had lived in had become, experimenting with what is I think incorrectly labeled "bisexuality" there's nothing "bi" about sexual encounters as far as my experiences go, it's "multi" if anything, and writing about that from the perspective of the more oppressed side of the equation, i.e. as a "revolutionary faggot" which cost me my job and many old friends, among other precious things, and being attacked and vilified by the growing numbers of younger poets who saw my methods and the series I had created and run or co-created and co-run as too political or not enough or whatever, and the sense that what had seemed like the kind of multigenerational and multi ethnic and multi racial and mutli-everything scene we had, or at least I had, long dreamed of being a part of, was becoming more and more factionlized, I left DC for New York in the spring of '75, where I started another little press called O Press and published another of Bruce Andrews's books, and Terence Winch's along with Diane Ward and others from DC. During my last years in DC I also became a book reviewer for the Washington Post where I championed books and poets and writers of the small presses and alternative scenes. I continued to do that in NYC in the Washington Post and the Village Voice and other venues. Before I left DC we ended the Mass transit series, but Some Of Us Press continued for a while, and the Folio Book Store readings began. I noticed from various publications and reading series and articles, that not long after I moved, my influence in starting a lot of what became the Washington Poetry scene was being revised and either my contribution was minimized or even outright ignored. That broke my heart. I'm sure there are plenty of people who see these events differently, but from my perspective it is still true that when I arrived in DC there was nothing but an invitation only salon for a poetry scene, and the usual academic reading venues. When I left there was a vital alternative to all that, not just readings, but publications, and people who felt they had every right to it. I take credit for being a big part of that proudly.