Michael Lally

Introduction to Some Of Us Press Issue

Volume 17:1, Winter 2016
Some Of Us Press Issue

Introduction by Michael Lally

In 1969 I moved to Washington, DC, to teach at Trinity College. My pregnant wife, Lee Lally, and I, and our baby daughter, could only find a place to rent that accepted toddlers and babies outside DC, in Hyattsville, Maryland. I was 27 and had just graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop, which, after four years in the military, I was able to attend thanks to the GI Bill. With an MFA in poetry, I was hired by Trinity to teach literature and creative writing. I was heavily involved in the antiwar and civil rights movements and had some poems coming out in the Bobbs-Merril anthology Campfires of the Resistance. I also had a couple of chapbooks due from small presses and had published widely in alternative poetry magazines, and in a few more traditional literary ones. In Iowa City I’d started Poetry Of The People, a selection of poems from poets around the country that I mimeographed, stapled together and mailed to underground and alternative newspapers and publications across the country, for them to reprint whatever they chose to. It was modeled on the then widely distributed Liberation News Service—“The Movement’s” alternative to the UPI and AP wire services.

On first arriving in the DC area, I received a letter informing me I’d been selected for a new poetry award set up under the Johnson administration and associated with what would become the National Endowment for the Arts and its grants. I think it was called The President’s Award. The letter invited me to a cocktail party given in honor of the recipients in the various categories. The hosts seemed confused when I showed up. I was pulled aside and told the poetry award was intended for a black poet and somehow they had taken my work for that of an African-American. They expressed their embarrassment at their mistake and were extremely apologetic about it, and the award was subsequently given to an African-American poet. 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 regularly gathered at an invitation-only salon to read their poems to each other. I was invited to join them, but when I did, I felt out of place. Some of their work was very good, but it had little in common with mine—it was much more cautious and traditional.

Lally, 1977

Michael Lally reading at Folio Books, January 1977. In background: Doug Lang, Terence Winch, Lynne Dreyer. Photo by Peter Barry Chouka.

 

The Beat era coffee house reading scene was long over in DC, and the only other reading venues I found were the more formal readings at the local colleges and universities, and at the Library of Congress where the well-known established poets, usually older white men, read. When John Ciardi gave a reading there during which he started fuming against what he saw as 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 there was room for a lot of different kinds of poetry and poetry audiences. To prove that, after a reading in DC for Campfires of the Resistance when it came out in 1971, which was standing-room-only and filled with the alternative audience I was looking for, I started a weekly open reading series. I had helped David Marcuse with the Community Book Store he started, on M Street if I remember correctly, and then moved to P Street off Dupont Circle to an old house with an upstairs room used for meetings (for antiwar organizing etc.) which he agreed to let me take over one night a week for a poetry reading series. One of the first to take part in this weekly open reading suggested we call it Mass Transit (unfortunately I no longer remember his name—he only came to it a few times).

The few rules for Mass Transit were meant to create an unintimidating atmosphere where like-minded alternative style poets might feel comfortable. First: the readings were open to anyone. Second: you could read only your own work, or at least the work of someone who was present. Third: you could read for no more than five minutes. Fourth: no one could comment on what anyone else read. And fifth, no applause, so that people whose work might not garner any would feel as welcome as those whose poems might. We sat, or lounged, on the carpeted floor, in a loose circle. We took up a collection for drinks and snacks, and someone would volunteer to go out and get them. Out of this weekly reading, I discovered local poets I had more in common with than the local academics and suggested that we start a small press to publish slim volumes (chapbooks) of work we thought should be getting out to a wider audience.

Mass Transit Magazine

 

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 other “minorities” and several physically challenged poets as regulars. Some Of Us Press was a separate entity, and because many of us were into communal solutions back then (thus the venture’s name), it was run as a collective with all decisions required to be unanimous. So some of the poets some of us dug who were regular participants at Mass Transit were not published by the press, due to one member or another’s objections.

The Some Of Us Press collective included, at one time or another: Lee Lally, Terence Winch, Ed Cox, Tim Dlugos, Ed Zahniser and Martina Darragh. I had moved with Lee and our two children inside the DC city limits at the end of 1971, if I remember correctly, to a rented house on Emory Place in the neighborhood known as Friendship Heights. Some Of Us Press worked out of our house, which rather quickly morphed into a commune with several people in it, and by 1974, when I moved out, had become a lesbian-feminist commune. During the years between the start up of Some Of Us Press and my moving out (1971-74), there were times when either Ed Cox or Tina Darragh stayed at the house. And some of the poets we published used it as a place to crash when they were in town as well. The SOUP collective did our best to put out a chapbook every month or so. They were usually designed by the poets themselves, with help sometimes from me and/or Lee (the logo was designed by Joan Hanor, an artist friend of Lee’s from our Iowa City days). They were the standard 8 ½ by 5 ½ inches, the pages stapled in the center like a magazine, and were usually around 30 pages, with some shorter and some longer. We sold each chapbook for only one dollar, making sure they were affordable for just about anyone. We advertised through brochures that we sent out to a mailing list created from all our address books; a consistently high percentage of the people on that list purchased each book, making it possible to print the next one.

We published the first books of many poets who later became well known. But we started with my South Orange Sonnets, which went through several printings before officially going out of print. Our second book was Lee Lally’s These Days, which went through several editions as well, and years later we learned was reprinted by others without permission, but a tribute nonetheless to its impact (it was one of the first books of poetry from the second-wave feminist movement). Lee had begun publishing poems when she was at The University of Buffalo in the early 1960s. But it was from the work she produced for the Mass Transit readings, which became the basis for These Days, that the voice so many responded to emerged.

Winch, Cox, Lally

Terence Winch, Ed Cox, and Michael Lally, 1972 or ’73. Photo by Jesse Winch.

Terence Winch had moved to DC from New York (and his native Bronx) not long after Lee and I arrived in DC. A musician, songwriter and poet, he became a regular at Mass Transit where, with so much in common, the two of us soon became best friends. He had published his poetry in magazines and was beginning to make record albums, first with the old-timey band The Fast Flying Vestibule and later with the Irish traditional band Celtic Thunder. Boning Up was his first book and the press’s third. Then came Ed Cox’s Blocks. A DC native, Navy vet, and social activist, Ed “came out” shortly before his book did, making it one of the first openly gay books of poetry of that era (or previous eras, actually). For our fourth book, we chose Sue Baker’s “She’s a Jim-Dandy”—which many of us recognized as one of the first books of openly lesbian poetry of modern times (though Lee’s These Days had some poems that touched on that as well). Sue had started out as a nude model and go-go dancer in DC, where she got media attention for organizing other go-go dancers into a union challenging their exploitation by “managers” (who in many cases operated more like pimps) and owners of the bars and clubs where they worked. But by the time of the book’s publication she had become a lesbian-feminist activist. Bruce Andrews had lived in Maryland, where he went to the University in College Park, but had moved on to Harvard. I met him while I was working at The Community Bookstore when we got into an intense discussion of “new jazz” and poetry. His pioneering language-centered poems, one of which had just appeared in The Paris Review, would make him later well known as one of the founders of the Language Poetry movement. His first book, Edge, was part of the mix that made Some Of Us Press so eclectic (and in many ways ahead of the times).

Len Randolph was heading the National Endowment for the Arts literature division when Some Of Us Press accepted his poetry collection Scar Tissue. He was part Native-American and a WWII combat veteran who’d had an extremely difficult childhood and appreciated the honesty and openness of much of the poetry read at Mass Transit. Len’s book was his first, basically an autobiography, with none of the poems having ever seen print before. Simon Schuchat was a DC teenager when I met him through his professor mother and turned him on to the work of my friend, “New York School” poet Ted Berrigan. He immediately hitchhiked to Manhattan to meet Ted. Simon’s SOUP book Blue Skies showed the influence of “The New York School” but in ways that were so unique it still resonates with precocious originality.

Tim Dlugos had been studying to be a Christian Brother when he was asked to leave, due to a “special relationship” with a fellow novitiate. He had been living in Philadelphia but on a visit to DC heard Ed Cox and me read at Catholic University, the first time he ever heard openly gay poetry (I had “come out” as gay publicly—although I have been mainly heterosexual all my life—as an act of solidarity with my gay friends, like Ed, which cost me my teaching position at Trinity as well as some friendships, and more). After the reading, Tim told Ed and me we were his heroes. Tim began writing his own openly gay poems, which SOUP published in his first book, High There. After moving to DC, Tim worked for Ralph Nader’s crusading campaigns, then moved to New York later in the 1970s, where his presence on the poetry scene had a lasting impact, long after he died of AIDS in 1990 at age 40.

Wash Rev 1988After Len Randolph, Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb was the oldest writer SOUP published. As a girl she had fled Berlin and the Nazi terror, and as an adult living in DC was an artist and activist against war, racism, sexism and anti-Semitism. I believe Moving Violation was her first book of poems. Margaret Gibson taught at George Mason University and had already published in several literary journals when the SOUP collective voted to publish her, making her an exception to the “alternative” vein of poetry, and backgrounds, among most of the SOUP poets. Her book Lunes, therefore, expanded the possibilities of approaches to poetry Some Of Us Press had come to represent. DC poet P. Inman became known as a unique voice in the Language Poetry movement, but his first book, What Happens Next?, published by SOUP, had a conversationally accessible and linear logic to it, despite its more surreal aspects. An enigmatic figure, at least to me, he was known in DC for starting the poetry magazine everybody’s ex-lover with his future wife, Tina Darragh. William Holland was known to most in the SOUP collective as Bill Holland, a popular DC musician with his own band, who sometimes read original poems at Mass Transit. Like many other Some Of Us Press poets, his How Us White Folks Discovered Rock & Roll was his first book. Beth Joselow was married and pregnant when she showed up at Mass Transit, if I remember correctly, and became an enthusiastic participant as well as a quietly charismatic presence whose poems were much admired. Ice Fishing was her first book as well. Ed Zahniser, the member of the Some Of Us Press collective who helped us keep our finances straight, worked for The Wilderness Society in DC. A nature lover and nature writer, his The Ultimate Double Play included several poems that had become audience favorites when he read them.

Lynne Dreyer’s writing was so original, many of the readers of her first book, Lamplights Used to Feed the Deer, which SOUP put out, were thrown by her brilliant but jarring juxtapositions. But within the burgeoning Language Poetry movement, the book made her an emerging star. Robert Slater is a Midwestern poet living and teaching in the Kansas City area who I had known at the Iowa Writers Workshop. I invited him to read his poetry in DC, so his work was known to many there. His A Rumor Of Inhabitants introduced his sparse and selective work to a wider audience, thanks to SOUP. I had left the commune and moved to an apartment off Dupont Circle by the time another Midwesterner, Paula Novotnak, had her strong feminist poetry selected for publication by Some Of Us Press. I, and others, have been unable to find a copy of her Circle of Hearts, so my guess is, it never came out (though I did publish a strong poem of hers in a poetry anthology I was asked to put together for Crossing Press in 1974, which didn’t come out until 1976: None of the Above). But there was one last book from SOUP that came out after I moved to New York in early 1975—Robert Hershon’s Rocks and Chairs. Hershon is a Brooklyn poet whose work we all knew and loved, as well as one of the editors of the magazine and small press Hanging Loose and was a director of The Print Center, a New York non-profit printing facility for small presses that Some Of Us Press used for several of its later books (for the earlier books we found the cheapest bid from a printer and used them, often switching printers from book to book).

When I look back on those days, I’m proud of all the great work Some Of Us Press brought to an appreciative audience, often made up of people who had never read much poetry, if any, before. And some of that poetry was seeing print for the first time. But I also wish we had published books by many more fine poets who were central to what made that time and place so special. Like Tina Darragh and Ahmos Zu-Bolton, to name only two, or those who came along just as Some Of Us Press was winding down, like E. Ethelbert Miller, Doug Lang and Diane Ward. I’ve started and have run reading series in other cites and other decades, and have been part of local and national and world poetry communities since I began reading and publishing my own poetry over a half century ago. But I have never been a part of anything as exciting and inspiring—or as grass roots democratic and communal—as the Mass Transit reading series, and Some Of Us Press which came out of that. And that’s not nostalgia, that’s simply the truth.

 

Michael Lally (1942 - ) was born in Orange, NJ. He served in the US Air Force (1962-1966), attended the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and lived in DC from 1969 to 1975, where he started the weekly poetry series and magazine Mass Transit, wrote book reviews for The Washington Post and The Village Voice, and taught at Trinity College. He co-founded Some Of Us Press; his book The South Orange Sonnets was the first book the press published, and it garnered the New York 92nd Street Y Poetry Center’s “Discovery Award” for 1972. From 1975 to 1982, Lally lived in New York, starring in a couple of horror movies, and in 1982, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting as a career. In California, he co-founded Poetry in Motion, a weekly poetry series, and edited the magazines The Hollywood Review and Venice. He raised his first two children as a single parent in NYC and LA (during the long final illness and after the death of his first wife, Lee Lally). Lally returned to the east coast in 1999, settling in Northern New Jersey. He has been married three times and has three children. He is the author of 28 books and chapbooks, including Swing Theory(Hanging Loose Press, 2015), It Takes One to Know One: Poetry and Prose (Black Sparrow Press, 2001), Cant Be Wrong (Coffee House Press, 1996), and Hollywood Magic (Little Caesar Press, 1982). He edited the influential anthology None of the Above: New Poets of the USA (The Crossing Press, 1976). His awards include two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature, The Pacificus Foundation Literary Award, The Poets Foundation Award, and an American Book Award. In addition, Lally is the author of five plays, and contributed to the screenplays for Drugstore Cowboy, Pump Up the Volume, and The Laureate, among others. His acting credits include such films as Cool World, Basic Instinct, White Fang, and The Nesting, and such television programs as Deadwood, Law & Order, JAG, NYPD Blue, Brooklyn South, the Father Dowling Mysteries, L.A. Law, and Cagney & Lacey.