Michael Lally

Seven excerpts from the DC Sonnets

20th Anniversary Reflections

Michael Lally wrote the introduction (and was an invaluable resource) for the Some Of Us Press Issue (Winter 2016, Volume 17:1).

He writes, “The biggest reward in co-editing of the 2016 Some Of Us Press issue of Beltway Poetry Quarterly was rediscovering the quality and originality of the work Some Of Us Press showcased in the early 1970s. Not only did we publish some of the best poetry written in the DC area, but in all of North America. As some of the poets are deceased, editing that Beltway Poetry issue included the input and memories of others still around, in the collaborative spirit of SOUP, as it was called. It was an emotional but gratifying experience to revisit the work of old friends and colleagues and to catch up with their lives and work (though most of us have stayed in touch since those days). It felt like that issue of Beltway Poetry somehow recreated the sense of community and purpose we all experienced back in a time when DC seemed almost like a small town, or at least the alternative poetry scene did.”


Seven Excerpts from the DC Sonnets


We find a hundred-a-month rental in DC
on Emery Place, off Wisconsin in Friendship
Heights. A funky old house with an overgrown
unused greenhouse out back, a tiny front yard,
three rooms on the second floor, on the third
an attic, on the first a living room, kitchen,
dining room, and office we use as a guest
room too, with a basement apartment sublet
by a Chinese-American college kid who not
long after we move in tries to kill herself, her
parents overly apologetic when they come to
get her things. Lisa, a student of mine, rents it
next. A native of Puerto Rico, dark-eyed and
intense, she shyly comes out as a lesbian to us. 


Dave M, a big bear of a man, has a bookstore on
M Street I help him move to an old house on P,
near Dupont Circle: THE COMMUNITY BOOK
STORE. There’s a large room upstairs for meetings.
I talk him into letting me use it for a weekly open
poetry reading series called MASS TRANSIT.
I hope to discover local poets I can relate to, who
don’t conform to academically accepted styles
but have their own unique and diverse voices,
knowing there’s an audience for that after seeing
the standing-room-only crowd at a reading at The
Institute for Policy Studies for the publication of
The Movement, with four poems of mine included.


To prevent MASS TRANSIT readings
from being dominated by one person, and
to help new people feel comfortable sharing
their poems, the rules I come up with are:
anyone can read, but not someone else’s
poems, or a poem longer than five minutes,
or criticize what others read. The room is
carpeted, but empty of furniture, so we sit
on the floor in a loose circle, and pass a
hat for money for drinks and snacks. It
quickly attracts the kinds of poets I’m
looking for, like Terence Winch, Bronx-
born son of Irish immigrants, who also
writes and plays traditional Irish music.


Terry moved to DC with his girlfriend, Marie,
his older brother, Jesse, already in town after
attending Howard University to study African
drumming, one of the rare white students there.
Like me, Terry is the youngest in a big Irish
family whose mother has passed. He’s tall,
lean, and always seems to have a wise crack
handy. Like walking down Wisconsin Avenue
in Georgetown the first time he hits me with
a smart ass bit at my expense. I stop walking.
He asks why. I say If we’re gonna be friends
man, you can’t do that, or I’ll have to hit you.
Fortunately, he doesn’t do it again until I’ve
learned to not take myself so fucking seriously. 


When Etheridge Knight stays with us for a poetry
reading at a nearby prison, he takes me along, the
only white non-convict in the audience of mostly
black prisoners digging his poems. But when he
talks about variations in oppression not mattering,
if crushed between steel or satin you’re still crushed,
or how poor Africans would find the poorest black
Americans well off, or how when he was in prison
and his cellmate got solitary it didn’t make him feel
any less imprisoned, they aren’t buying. Pointing
to me he says how young white people could be
oppressed too, like in their struggle against the war,
and racism, and sexism. But most look at me like
I’m a bug they just noticed and need to eradicate.


I’m behind the counter at the bookstore when
a tall, white, almost preppy, young man asks for
a book on New Jazz. As I lead him to it, we start
a discussion on music, politics, and poetry that’ll
last for decades. I recognize his name, Bruce
Andrews, from a short poem he has in the latest
PARIS REVIEW. Working on a graduate degree
at Johns Hopkins before leaving for more studies
at Harvard, he’s a fan of Robert Grenier, who
I knew at Iowa, and of Ashbery’s THE TENNIS
COURT OATH, which I’m reevaluating. Bruce
believes poetry should be about aspects of words
other than primary meanings. Connotations over
denotations. Or what I call warm-up exercises.


A young worker at the bookstore sends me a
man my age looking for a poetry book. He’s
Ed Cox, a wiry Navy vet who I learn grew up
poor in DC with a mother who killed herself.
A mostly self-taught poet and poetry lover,
he’s been influenced by academics like Reed
Whitmore at the nearby U of Maryland. We
don’t have the book, but I turn him onto ones
by George Oppen and Larry Eigner, and invite
him to MASS TRANSIT. Like many at the
weekly readings, Ed thinks of himself as an
aspiring poet cause he hasn’t published many,
if any, poems yet. But I tell him his poetry
is already more original than Whitmore’s.


Michael Lally (1942 - ) was born in Orange, NJ. He served in the U.S. 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 thirty books and chapbooks, including Another Way to Play: Poems 1960 - 2017 (seven stories press, 2018), 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.