mimeograph machine

As I've mentioned before on here, Iron Diesel Press has closed its doors. Partly it's an issue of the press never really gaining traction. Partly it's an issue of the the whole project resting on one person's shoulders, which means it collapses when that person has crisis in their personal life. But mainly it is just an issue of DIY projects often have short lifespans. In any case, I wanted to reprint an essay here that originally appeared on Iron Diesel's (now-defunct) website, explaining why I published my first book with them in the first place. Two year later, I know a lot more about books and publishing, but I still stand behind the sentiments in this essay. 

By the way, if anyone wants to buy a copy of Harvitz, I still have some back stock (and will for a while), so you can buy a copy directly from me. I'll even sign it. Just drop me an email.

dead at 26, alive at 26

I have been thinking about d.a. levy all year long, because this is my twenty-sixth year, and d.a. levy died when he was twenty-six.

d.a. levy was a kid from Cleveland who, after getting kicked out of the Navy and coming back home in the early nineteen-sixties, decided to become a great writer and give Cleveland its own literary tradition. Levy soon became the center of a new and thriving underground poetry and arts scene, but his activities were not appreciated in the still McCarthyist Midwest of the mid-1960s.  The town fathers of Cleveland simply did not want a literary tradition. Throughout 1966 and 1967, levy was hounded by the Cleveland Police Department on charges of distributing “obscene” poetry.  In 1968, he killed himself with a gunshot to the head.

Ed Sanders (of  Fugs fame) said of levy:  "He was like Jeremiah.  He had the potential to be a great religious writer – a prophet."  The comparison to Jeremiah is appropriate.  Levy was someone who saw Babylon for what it is, and was persecuted greatly for speaking this vision.  Jeremiah was imprisoned not by the Babylonians, but by his fellow Hebrews (as detailed by J. Zornado on the Iron Diesel blog back in January).  By the same token, the primary evidence against levy in court was not given by a police officer, but by a kid from the scene who turned informant.

Sander’s qualifier of “potential” is also appropriate.  When someone takes their life at such a young age, you have to talk about them in those terms.  An early death is not a great achievement; it is a tragedy that precludes greater achievements.

That being said, levy did leave behind a very accomplished (if occasionally dated) body of work.  It hurts to think of the more developed works levy never gave us, but the many works he did leave us with deserve their due.  One of my favorite poems of his is sitting on a bench near TSQuare, which ends with the stanzas:

god i think yr sense of humor is sad & perhaps you are also feeling something like an outlaw

god i am wondering for how many years have the jews exiled you while they busied themselves with survival

This man was already a great religious writer.  He took on the role of the intermediary, though in an inverse manner to the Hebrew Prophets of ancient Israel: they explained God to the Jewish people; levy, a scruffy half-Jew from modern day Cleveland, explained the Jews to God.

The reason I’m writing about levy here, on the site of a small press, is not just because of what he did as a poet, but what he did as a publisher.  From 1963 to 1968, levy published dozens of books on his Renegade Press and 7 Flowers Press.  There were no were no outlets for levy and his friends to publish their work, so he created his own.  From 1967 to 1968, he also published The Buddhist 3rd Class Junk Oracle, which was Cleveland’s first underground newspaper, as well as a prophetic manifestation of the collaged punk zines that would come along ten years later.  Levy did these things because he believed in the work, because he believed in the vision, and because he was determined to unleash them on Cleveland (and the world) at any cost.  And the cost was great.

Publishing on a truly independent (renegade, to use levy’s term) press is still a frightening endeavor.  The fear now, though, is not that one will be persecuted as levy was, but rather that all your work will simply be ignored.  “Independent” can mean “alone.”  We live in our own times, and we face our own obstacles.  This is a more diffused type of fear, where there is no visible opponent.  In 1970, they shot anti-war protestors dead.  In 2003, they pretended we didn’t exist at all, broadcasting hundreds channels of entertainment, none showing any images of 300,000 folks protesting in the streets of New York.

But what can you do?  You can’t give up.  You protest because you have to. You write books because you have to.  Small presses publish books because they have to.  You live because you have to. The fact of the matter is we have a lot of good things going for us that small press folks in the 60s didn’t have.  For one thing, we have a longer and stronger history of independent publishing in America behind us now (a legacy which levy contributed to greatly).  For another, independent presses today have a lot better technology than mimeograph machines at their disposal.

I know that a lot of the statements made in the previous paragraph sound simple and obvious.  At the same time, I wish someone could have been there to say simple and obvious things to levy when he was alone in his apartment with his rifle to his head.  Like, “Hey, Darryl Allan, stay alive.  Don’t kill yourself.  Leave Cleveland if you have to.  Go write more poems.  You’ll write better poems.  Young folks will still be reading them in forty years.  They’ll write their own books too. You’ll make a great old man.  Twenty-six is too young to die.”

da levy was a renegade.  He fought for poetry. He was persecuted by goons and snitches.  He was twenty-six when he took his own life.  I am twenty-six now, but I don’t plan on dying any time soon.  My first book will be published by Iron Diesel Press later this year.  I don’t know that it’s as great as anything levy did, but I do know that I’ll be twenty-seven when it comes out.  May there be abundant peace from heaven.