Joan Retallack

"About Mass Transit: The Dupont Circle Circle"
[from the Washington Review 14.2 (August/September 1988)]

In the late 1960s to mid-1970s, Washington underwent a figure-ground shift. What was happening in the streets became more important than what was happening inside its neo-this-and-that architecture. For a time, the establishment urn with its volume of preconceptions receded, and a populace aiming to reinvent America emerged--panhandlers, hippies, outraged citizens, moral leaders, educators, artists, social theoreticians and utopians, ex-centrics of all kinds--preoccupied with redefinitions of form, with possibilities that lay outside the old rules. It was a time of pervasive experimentation and, incidentally, turned our small, conservative, quasi-southern town into a real city--a condition which, despite houses of imported culture like the East Wing and the Kennedy Center, and our 30 kinds of ethnic cuisine, we have since lost.

Real city? A city in Jane Jacobs’ sense (she uses the term "great city") where the quality of everyday life is dominated by a confluence of strangers in public space; where juxtapositions of human encounter are highly unpredictable once you exit the front door of your private sanctuary; where a level of strangeness in daily life is tolerated, even appreciated, certainly not feared. The high urban experience is an antithesis of the intentional predictability of suburbia whose original model in this country was, according to Robert Stern, a Brooklyn cemetery. It is a form which, to echo Beckett, allows the mess in. Bakhtin would speak, perhaps more appealingly, of the carnival. Washington, like Los Angeles, has always been constitutionally suburban in spirit--a topography of contiguous enclaves. It took national crises--the civil rights and anti-war movements--to give Washingtonians the experience of en-mass otherness that New Yorkers, Parisians, and Romans take for granted. Even if you remained resolutely in the outer suburbs, you saw the crowds marching down Pennsylvania Avenue on TV.

Apart from the Federal City, the focal public space during this period was Dupont Circle, overflowing with the kind of dissenting popular vitality--drug scene excepted--Walt Whitman would have loved. Had he been there he might well have said, as he does in "A Song for Occupations," yes, "The President is there in the White House for you, it is not you who are here for him," and, no doubt, much more about the rush of crowds," "city tableaux . . . ." But, of course, Dupont Circle meant more than its park and streets. It meant the Washington Gallery of modern Art, the spirit if not the precise geography of the Corcoran, the P Street strip of commercial galleries, all supporting and showing the eruption of truly exciting formal invention among local visual artists: Morris Louis, Kenneth No land, Gene Davis, Anne Truitt, Sam Gilliam, Rockne Krebs, V.V. Rankine, Jennie Lea Knight, and many more. The Institute for Policy Studies was sponsoring a film project and a guerilla theater group; and a town house on P St. contained the Community Book Shop, scene of weekly open readings from 1972 to 1974, hosted by Michael and Lee Lally, Terence Winch, and Ed Cox, referred to as "Mass Transit" along with the magazine put out by its participants; home also of Some of Us Press which over a period of several years brought out well over a dozen books.

The open readings were a self-selected version of the street scene come indoors. There was intelligence, commitment, intensity, quirkiness, craziness, generosity, egomania, imitation, experimentation, mediocrity, moments of great wit, even brilliance. Numbers might range from 12 to 100. There were working class advocates, intellectuals, feminists, gays of both genders, blacks, a closet WASP here and there, second-generation Irish Catholics, and Jews. What else is there? Much more, of course, and there were probably a couple of them, too. Writers from New York and it national environs looked in when they were in town--Ray di Palma, Bruce Andrews, David Hilton, Jim Haining . . . Mass Transit enjoyed some notoriety in certain poetry circles. There was a pervasive anti-establishment (government, church, middle-class decorum) stance, anti-straight. The point was to affirm, echoing Derrida, writing and difference, a decentering, ex-centric urban scene, a project peculiarly appropriate to Washington which has always been off-center. (Those who come to the city expecting to find the "center of power" soon find they must look elsewhere.) One might say the unifying poetic project in an atmosphere characterized by difference was to create with language, on the page, the kind of figure-ground shift occurring in the socio-political world; to redefine what was at stake, what did or did not lie within the bounds of the poem.

This, of course, had been going on for a long time in other places, but it was new to Washington, at least in the white poetry community which had followed a fairly conservative tradition. From the front stoop of the Community Book Shop the Washington metropolitan area appeared to be dominated by a kind of suburban-academic-free-verse idyll with its obligatory last minute epiphany (the punch line), with the Anglo habit of formally domesticating wildness into gardens and poetry, taming strangeness with clever innocuous metaphor--the process of metaphor itself balancing incommensurables in neat equations; by the eradication of difference in a ubiquitous present tense, monochromatic voice, and reassuringly conventional syntax; staving off the experience of disjunction with cautious transitions--generally shutting out the mess, the carnival, the wonderful and frightening strangeness of the American experience.

Mass Transit and the Folio Books group that followed posited a non-academic audience with urban1 sensibilities and an exploration of all that was not all of the above. In fact, an anthology of New Poets of the USA (The Crossing Press, 1976) edited by Michael Lally, was entitled None of the Above. In the third issue of Mass Transit Lally writes, "O Walt Whitman, great housewife of American lust/ you gave us the list to improve upon/ and now we wait to find out who will." American lust; American lists. We are a continent annotated by our lists of obsessive desires: for independence, religion, sex, fast food, fast cars, ranch houses, farmettes, speed boats, dishwashers, microwaves, Chinese food, remote control, gentrification, endocrine enlarged heroes, guns, tans, barbecue, swimming pools, fast talk, tough politicians, sentimental movies and songs, fast money, war, and peace . . .The haphazard contingency of the list reflects our accidental, anecdotal, potluck culture--one thing following another, spatially and temporally, incoherently: McDonald’s next to funeral home next to Thai carryout, next to discount lingerie. The list is a staple of a good many Dupont Circle writers. Here is one that subdues chaos, that could structure a life:

My sister Pat smoked Chester field Kings non filter before she quit. She was the only person I knew who smoked Chesterfield Kings non filter. My grandfather, who lived till he was 87, smoked a pack of Camels a day.

The worst cigarettes are Lark, Viceroy, Dorals and Tareytons. David Hilton would include Vantage. They are certainly bad too. Camels, Luckies and Pall Malls are good, but a bit strong. Gauloises and hand rolled Bull Durhams are t he foulest cigarettes. Philip Morris and Old Golds were once among the great cigarette brands, but suffered a terrible decline in popularity over the last twenty years. Do Say Du Maurier was once a popular expression. Mostly I smoked Marlboros, Winstons and Kent. Later on I forced myself to get used to True Blues. I wasn’t crazy about Parliaments, but I would smoke them in an emergency.2

The figure-ground shift is accomplished here when the reader realizes the brand names are the foreground behind which the narrator, his sister Pat, and his grandfather tentatively lurk. The peculiar literalness and the flat affect also foreground all that this is not. It is not, for instance, the development of character, a Whitmanesque celebration, the piquant attention of Frank O’Hara. It is an exhaustion of the confessional, the detumescing of the ego-inflated "I," a piece that consists primarily in naming, which was, of course all Gertrude Stein thought a poem had any business doing. Finally, it is along with a good many other pieces in Mass Transit, a blurred genre--not clearly identifiable as poetry or prose or even extended anecdote.

In "Six These" (Mass Transit 4) Bernard Welt, like Winch, writes almost entirely margin to margin. Only the sixth part, called "If this is Wednesday, we must be in Paradise," does he use conventional line breaks. I suppose one must be conventional (to make it) in(to) paradise. The last lines of the section read, "For in that moment both of them knew/no one would ever do anything really wrong or indeed questionable again." Happily a great deal is amiss along the way to this steady state, the oxymoronic blinding insight of Romance. The narrator in Part I (entitled "Call me a taxi"), says:

Confused, I began reading long and complex works on phenomenology in German, a language I have never had the pleasure of learning. I do the subject-as-object bit.

and then goes on in the third stanza/paragraph:

When I was twelve, my mother ran away with a butcher named Otto Kranz, a pudgy man with a thick grey moustache, who wore his blood-stained apron even in our living room.

and Part 5 in its entirety:

Missed it by that much.
In your old age, you take great comfort in a newly developed theory of languages which finally proves once and for all that communication between any two given hypothetical persons is theoretically impossible. You take to wearing an monocle. Your dueling scar is getting deeper; it begins to gather dust. You have to hire a Polish woman to come in twice a week to clean it out. Often you assign the wrong cases to nouns and refer to others in the first person. You look forward to the good old days in the Academy. You become a slave to your own idea of what constitutes good manners and everyone apologizes to you on your deathbed.

From this play on "old world" philosophical and literary decorum, with its stance of looking forward to the past, the poem leaps to the indisputably American, Wednesday paradise of hamburgers, non-dairy creamer, Bill, Ed, and Ellen in Part 6. Welt does not ease our travel from one section to the next with their respective pronoun and voice changes, probably because he trusts the intelligence of his imagined audience, but also because in order to experience the humor of the figure-ground shift, one must experience the gap, the seismic moment when a fissure reveals itself. The ground that is slipping away here is that of causally structured narrative, of logical priority.

The five issues of Mass Transit contain feminist voices:

The horses have ridden off
with who ever would go.
The prince should have
been here by now.
We are no longer waiting
We are writing our own stories.3

and the black language of Ahmos Zu-Bolton:

. . .hey man
how come a professor like you is
driving a cab?

boy, he sez, look here
I’m gonna educate your
black ass: beowulf was a
taxicab driver, bill shakespeare
drove part-time in a ford
I like to travel4

There is socio-political confessional poetry; Whitman out of the closet; hip talk about fucking, masturbating, irreverence to nuns and priests; fantasies of violence and Daliesque deaths; mention of strangely interdigitated bodily parts; adolescent blues of various kinds, a poignant slice-of-lifism. The collection is eclectic and uneven, but impressively large-spirited in its accommodation of a wide range of styles. Here is a section of Beth Baruch-soon-to-be-Joselow’s "Colorado," a socio-surrealist commentary:

It all happened
When we left the big
Yellow town and
Drove up into the mountains,
Babe always gets lost
In the mountains
Even with out choices . . .
And when we looked
Ahead, they were selling
Pieces of the mountain
To tourists who drive
Those big campers with
W’s on the back and
TV antennas on top,
And the tourists
Were putting great chunks
Of mountain, with bluebells
And clover in the backs
Of their vans.
Splitting up the springs and
The waterfalls,
Bickering over the price
Of a snowcap (was it worth
More than half an unstocked
And Babe said, now I know
We’re lost,
And I sold the map
To a man with a green visor
And I said
Babe, I know.5

"Colorado," Lee Lally’s poem, much of the work in Mass Transit, and many of the SOUP publications call for reversals in social perspective, not a redefinition of the field of the poem. The message is the chief point, not the medium. Language, as with typical mainstream poetry, remains at the service of ideas; it has not ben deconstructed.

What was important about Mass Transit (readings and magazines) was the range of exploration it encouraged. It permitted purgatives and tonics necessary to the health of the medium--particularly when laced with humor and formal play. The magazines, Mass Transit and Everybody’s Ex-Lover (Eel) are to some extent catalogs of possible moves for those abandoning old rules. There is a great deal that is not fully realized, much that might be labeled juvenilia by the matured poets, but the scene is set for important developments in Washington’s experimental literary community. Meanwhile there have been glimpses of interdeterminacy and major structural realignments, as well as linguistic high jinks to delight in: Tina Darragh mapping the spatial coordinates and graphic potential of the page; Peter Inman exercising his ear for phonetically pungent language; Lynne Dreyer blurring genres with a developing prose-poetry of quick associative and conceptual takes; and there are collaborative pieces--the ultimate renunciation of the ego-authorial voice. Bruce Andrews is doing what will come to be called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry in Edge published by SOUP in 1973. There are hints of the future in all this, perhaps most explicitly in the quotations on the first page of Edge: "There is a sound that came and made t he agreeable deplacement of no sign,"--Gertrude Stein--and, "joining items not by their center (denotative meaning) but by their edges (sound and connotation)"--Roger Shattuck. In 1974, the Community Book Shop left Dupont Circle for 18th Street. Michael Lally moved to New York, and Mass Transit ended.

Discount Books, where Winch and Inman worked, held the geographical locus along with the Pyramid Gallery, where a number of readings took place in the next year, until the opening of Folio Books and the emergence of Doug Lang as a guiding spirit, organizer, and mentor to a new poetry circle with some carryover from Mass transit but with a very different (invitational) format. Local poets met for works-in-progress readings at Folio, put together two issues of a magazine called Dog City, and read in a series paired with out-of-town writers including John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Fielding Dawson, Tom Raworth, Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, and many others. This was one of the most energetic reading series Washington has ever had. Doug Lang arranged over eighty-five readings in a period of four years. For those who attended regularly it was an education in new American poetries. During this time he also started Jawbone Press and collaborated with Terence Winch, Bernard Welt, and Diane Ward on Titanic Books.

The Folio poets group (Doug Lang, Bernard Welt, Diane Ward, Tina Darragh, Peter Inman, Lynne Dreyer, Phyllis Rosenzweig, Donald Britton, Joan Retallack, Connie Mckenna, and Julie Brown--and several others on a fringe basis) took on an identity (for most, though not all, members) as part of a New York, Baltimore, San Francisco axis. Three Baltimore performance poets--Kirby Alone, Marshall Reese, and Chris Mason--drove down regularly for meetings. Anselm Hallo came during the year or so he was based in the Washington area. New York poets were frequently invited for readings. Several District poets corresponded with Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Barrett Watten, and Steve Benson on the West Coast. The focus was less local and less directly political in terms of content, than it had been during the Mass Transit years, although the commitment to the investigation of form remained political in a broad sense. The issue was more clearly language and form, with Whitman, Stein, and W.C. Williams, Pound, Zukofsky Jackson MacLow, John Cage, the first through third generation New York school poets, and N.Y. and S.F. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E people as kin.

The polemical spirit of Mass Transit, as well as the old world, cynical surrealist impulse, was almost entirely gone--replaced by American tones and inventiveness. It is characteristically American, after all, to be absurdly optimistic, playfully innovative. Our patent office attests to that. It is the legacy of a people who think they made a new world, and are not entirely wrong. Gertrude Stein is a quintessential American in this sense, along with John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. Interestingly, Doug Lang, who is Welsh by birth and cultivation, was a constant reminder of a particular kind of Americanness:

I walk through the rain with the Americans.
We get wet. It is May Day 1976. We go to
Machiavelli’s. We eat cannelloni, lasagne,
veal scallopini, and so on. Style
is what these Americans bring to an
intelligent appreciation of the world.
We play Fats Waller & Al Jolson on the Jukebox.
Al Jolson reminds me of Jim Long. Hi Jim! So long.
When we leave, we leave and the rain has stopped. Some
of the Americans are kind of drunk. Some
of the Americans are called Barbara, Melissa
Michelle, Mike, Cary, Jody, Diane, Timothea,
Jim, Lauren Ethel, Ann, Clifton, Suzanne, Bruce
Rommel, Robin.6

The proliferation of exciting work in the Folio years was so great, it deserves treatment independently of this primarily historical account. Part of what occurred is typical of, even necessary to any group with investigative intentions. In the midst of our low-context culture, in which we share so few common assumptions, an inordinate amount of time is spent filling in the Reference, spelling out or decoding the Message. The Dupont Circle poets had managed through their literary and social association over the years to create a high-context community with a more or less common conceptual framework, enabling preoccupations to move away from discursive reference toward language and form per se. (This is not to suggest that is always the outcome of high-context groups, which of course can be conservative). Yes, this was to a degree hermetic, incestuous; but as with the Washington Color Painters, who did the same thing with a progressive visual vocabulary, the important issue was the vitality registering within the minimalist consequences. Why minimalist? Radically new work, of which there was a good deal among these poets, always has a minimalist quality, at least for a time, because it is disorienting, detached from the received mythologies that fill out the form. We are initially most acutely aware of what is not there. I takes time to undergo a reorientation, to focus on what is. At which point figure and ground shift. What has appeared minimal and abstract becomes maximal and concrete, filling the field of our vision with its substance. Peter Inman’s work, from the Folio years on (1975 to the present) is a good example of this. His phonemes fill eye, brain, mouth. Larynx with synesthetic amplitude:


    opthithalm)       jlack)

    mange-red hair)        paled vore)


    oct)jam)      lay)bratch)

    swim of blass)


Phonemes, which are usually ground (morphemes-figure) have become figure.

Tina Darragh’s "carbon atom" has both phonemic and skewed semantic wit, while skimming the edge of conventional syntax. Where Inman’s work has gone almost entirely semantically opaque, Darragh in "carbon atom" provides the tantalizing glimpses of semantic sense we might experience in beginning to learn a foreign language. It is semi-opaque language with continual figure-ground scintillations:

garge femme bee of eucalyptus garni

    vous and often hinging crack laub

or phallic mezza beets

gargoy Arab lild bay surdown trove in

     retease coon trees vancara

stet at nigh

oblesse gring naps to whey or phinx of

     no tip delow a reefer neuro poe

falafil urn grid or telf cutex tonmo


Phyllis Rosenzweig’s work, almost entirely composed of found language, thrives on the figure-ground indeterminacy of juxtaposition:

. . . Like a non-objective mural for no particular place
Like architecture
You can’t interfere with nature
so learn to cooperate
For bad dreams about rejection
Same time, same place, same material
The great American List and
The start of a new era of starting over
is starting over
Nothing follows nothing and
we keep going
The geography etcetera of 53rd Street
We repeat verticals like heartbeats
The beginning of one of those
very aggressive black and white situations
Meanwhile we have Beethoven and
The music you are hearing is the music you selected . . .9

In Diane Ward’s Theory of Emotion (Segue Press, 1979) we are always on the edge of explication, feeling the potential for that edge to cut through to paraphrastic epiphany. But it does not. It leaves us in the margins of theory, scene of t he displacement of figure, not figure itself:

There’s no detail only some giant garden of delights in which there’s this faceless bag of goodies lit from the back and all the good is preceded by bad or chronology has nothing to do with selective memory the memory that tends to block out positives and emphasize negatives rules out any need for closeness. An important fantasy is confusing this scene. Sometimes two fingers would be enough for some things. A long life would probably end unhealthy, plans will be ruined, the aggressive hero indecisive, the lover clumsy. We’re concentrating on direction which is the thing that counts that gentle Vermeer take in which there’s only one light source one central figure and one activity that repeats itself slowly and gracefully and unconsciously, Gentlemen, we’ve all mispronounced your names.

And, finally, Lynne Dreyer’s list where surface goes flat, where figure and ground collapse entirely, where everything counts equally. It reads like a description of the Folio years:10

A testimonial desert, an acrobatic walk, a physical sunset, an introverted desert, an accomplished necklace, a stained reaction, an honest V-neck, a fractional chance, patient books, directional success, an individual doll, an open carnival, sympathy, crystal methodology, humorous dogs.11

I am aware of what a small sample this is of the rich work of these poets. It has not been possible to look, for instance, at the range of their graphic ingenuity, or at the collaborative work. I will end by anticipating at least one question concerning the broad project in which these poets have been engaged: Why must poetry, or for that matter any art, continually reinvent itself? Rosalind Krauss tells a story which speaks to this:

One day while the show, "Three American Painters" was hanging at the Fogg Museum at Harvard, Michael Fried and I were standing in one of the galleries. To our right was a copper painting by Frank Stella, its surface burnished by the light which flooded the room. A Harvard student . . . approached us. With his left arm raised and his finger pointing to the Stella, he confronted Michael Fried. "What’s so good about that?" he demanded. Fried looked back at him, "Look," he said slowly, "there are days when Stella goes to the Metropolitan Museum. And he sits for hours looking at the Velazquezes, utterly knocked out by them and then he goes back to his studio. What he would like more than anything else is to paint like Velazquez. But what he knows is that that . . . option . . . is not open to him. So he paints stripes." Fried’s voice had risen. "He wants to be Velazquez so he paints stripes."12

What Stella loves in Velazquez is the vitality that drew on the culture, colors, and forms of 17th century Spain. The reason why derivative work is so disappointing--regardless of the inteligence, cleverness, or sensitivity of the artist--is that it is parasitic on a dead carcass (today 17th century Spain is a dead carcass), a temps perdu. Or, to put it another way, style--unlike fashion--consumes itself, gets used up; nostalgia, which anything (including style) that has been around too long carries with it, is the death of art.

Nostalgia is a form of homesickness (from the Greek nostos, home + algia, pain), the experience of exile--lost times, contexts, cultures. It clouds judgment. It is possible to be nostalgic about 19th century injustice of even Hitler as an icon of our lost innocence. Loss provides the edge, absence. I suppose, counter to the French, I want to say that art most importantly embodies, not absence, but presence. The best of the Dupont Circle poets have been writing a poetry of presence.


Reprinted with permission from Washington and Washington Writing, David McAleavey, editor, George Washington University.

1When Washington again became a large small town, there was an exodus of Dupont Circle poets to New York City--though a core group remained.

2Terence Winch, from "Smoking," Mass Transit 4 (Spring/Summer, 1974).

3Lee Lally, from "You Were Burying Us Before We Were Dead," These Days (Some of Us Press, 1971-1972).

4Mass Transit 2.

5Mass Transit 1.

6From "The Americans," Magic Fire Chevrolet (Titanic Books, 1980).

7Dog City 2 (1980).

8EEL (Summer, 1977).

9From "For Alan," Dog City 2 (1980).

10Folio Books closed in 1978.

11Dog City (1977).

12Artforum II (September 2, 1972), 48-51.