EXCERPTS FROM APATHY PRESS POETS

A BRIEF ETHNOGRAPHY

By RICHARD SOBER

1990

“Apathy Press Poets” constitutes a coherent subculture, transcending geographical location and infrequent social contact.  Apathy Press is a small publishing house printing broadsheets and chapbooks of mainly, but not exclusively, Baltimore poets.  Apathy exists side by side with other local small presses and also within a national network of small presses, “little” magazines, and individual poets.

This retrospective of Apathy is not unlike leaving a family and returning for a visit to better understand where one comes from.  The interviews and observations of Apathy Press Poets and others who affiliate themselves with Baltimore’s artistic-literary community illuminate a shared spiritual bond that exists alongside that of occupation.  Cultural identity is constantly created, re-created, and maintained through the common attitudes, experiences, and ideas expressed through the vehicle of Apathy Press Poets.

Besides “Apathy” existing within a cultural framework of “little” magazines, it also exists as an historical offshoot of the “Beat” generation, of Beat literature in general, and the “New York School” of poetry.  Tom Diventi, the founder of Apathy Press, says his “literary ancestors are Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, and other significant beat generation poets, that whole group  bonded together by their alienation from the status quo.  The On the Road idea.” Despite the fact that  “Apathy Project” began twenty years after the height of the Beat generation, a bridge connecting the two cultures was built partially through the reading of Beat literature by Apathy poets and partially through the attendance of “Beat” and “New York School” readings.  The readings include the names of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Ed Sanders, Diane di Prima, William Burroughs, Herbert Huncke, Taylor Mead, and Ray Bremser.  The “New York School” poets who have read in Baltimore include Ted Berringan, Jim Carroll, Alice Notley, Anne Waldman, and John Giorno.

Diventi began the “Apathy Project” in 1977.  He was in the now-defunct “Sherman’s bookstore on Mulberry Street and Park Avenue in downtown Baltimore when he saw a button that read ‘Apathy.’   He said this started him thinking about “‘apathy’ as a concept.  Tom says that “it’s a catalyst for action.  You can’t have sloth without work.  Apathy is a great motivator.” The obvious paradox here is that the dominant culture’s view of apathy is that it is antithetical to action.  The inversion of dominant cultural values is in fact an important facet of Apathy world view.  In any event, the carriage house Tom lived in at the time became a gathering place where poets read, bands played, and artists displayed their work.  Tom says Apathy Project “came out of a frustration with the Theatre Project (which began as local ‘experimental’ theatre).  I felt frustrated because the Theatre Project wouldn’t let us do stuff we wanted, like poetry.  Phil Arnaut (the director) didn’t support the local art students .”   During this time numerous readings took place at the Maryland Institute College of Art, the “Red Door Hall”, Second Story Books, and various bars in and near downtown Baltimore.  These readings were sponsored by varied groups.  It is important to note that while Apathy is the subject of this paper, it was and is not the “center” of poetry in Baltimore.  It is one among several groups sponsoring and “promoting” poetry and poetry series in the city.

In 1986 Apathy Project was briefly revived out of another house Tom lived in.  Apathy Press began in 1985 with Tom publishing his own works, Pipedreams , Tell a Vision and Gray Matters.  He claims no one else would publish his work, so he did.  This lead to the decision to publish other writers, who he says, “felt pissed off about doing great stuff and nobody cared.  Getting a book out is concrete.  Cheap bids for immortality.”  Since the beginning of Apathy Press, over fifty  people have been published.  The printing is done at “Kinko’s”, a 24-hour-a-day Xerox copy center located in downtown Baltimore.  The writing is usually accompanied by collages, photographs, or drawings made by the writers or their friends.  The books range from a few pages in length to fifty-nine pages.  No one receives money for their books. They are given a few free copies to do with as they see fit.  The $1 to $3 usually charged for the books barely, if ever, covers printing expenses.  Usually 200 to 250 copies are printed in each edition.  Tom and/or the author of each book staple them together.  If someone desires a second edition, he or she does it at their own expense, as Wes Goldman recently did.  His chapbook, Streets, is a collection of homeless people in New York City.  Apathy Press books are distributed from Louie’s Bookstore and Normal’s Books in Baltimore and from St Mark’s Bookshop and Mosaic Books in New York.

As an urban phenomenon Apathy reflects the pressures, frustrations, alienation, and opportunities found in a large city.  It acts both as a sanctuary and a pretext for social gatherings.  Improvisation and spontaneity are integral parts of Apathy, as its survival depends upon adaptation to the transient, precarious nature and status of poetry in a materialistic culture.  Concern with self and control over one’s art are major preoccupations, as well as concern with creating an enduring world through printing of texts, tattooing, and the creation of friendships.

White males dominate the agenda at Apathy-sponsored poetry readings.  Apathy presently publishes twenty-nine people.  Three of the poets are male African-Americans and five of the poets are white women.  Insofar as Apathy is a “group” it is a gender-based and race-based fraternity.   There is no conscious or deliberate intention to discriminate against anyone on the basis of gender, race, or content of one’s writing.  As Sandie Castle who published a collection of poems, The Catholics are Coming, with the now defunct Maryland Writers’ Council Hot Summer Press and plans to publish with Apathy says, “I don’t think it’s on Apathy Press’s agenda to be conscious of the need of finding women to be published.  It just doesn’t acknowledge that it’s a problem.   It doesn’t take responsibility for that.” Jennifer Beets, who published Love Poems with Apathy, thinks if more women “brought their stuff” to Tom he’d publish it.  Terry Edmonds, who’s published two chapbooks with Apathy says, “I think that a lot of blacks and women have preconceived notions about a non-structured white person like Tommy.  He might not be sensitive to their writing.  But he is.  The whole race/gender thing fades away.  I consider myself a poet who happens to be black.  Apathy transcends those emotions tied into race and gender”.   Apathy Press considers it a matter of irrelevance whether or not one is white, a woman, or from one class or another.  Diventi says, “Everyone can be a part, but no one has to join.”

Nevertheless, most of the Apathy Press Poets and many of the people in the audiences attending readings are from white, middle or lower-class families.  Most have some college education.  Some have received master’s degrees.  While gender and racial composition of Apathy does not represent an inversion of dominant culture social patterns, the rejection of middle class values and affluence is, in part, evidenced in styles of clothing which often consist of black shirts, pants, jackets, socks and shoes or neutral-colored clothing. When someone does wear brightly-colored clothing, it is usually from a “second-hand” store, from the 1950’s, 1960’s or 1970’s.  There is, to a large degree, avoidance of contemporary sartorial fashion.

Just as gender and race are secondary in importance to self-identity as poet, occupation is subordinate to art.  The occupations of the poets, supporters of Apathy Press (financially and morally), those involved in distributing its books, and the co-sponsors, are varied.  Interestingly enough, only one person said they made a living by, among other things, selling their books.  Most people hold down full or part-time jobs including proofreading, social work, restoring art, house painting, “odd jobs”, housecleaning, teaching, and tattooing.   Mok Hossfeld is an administrator at BAUhouse.  Rupert Wondolowski (a pseudonym) and “tentatively a convenience’, also a pseudonym, both work at “Kinko’s”.   Rupert is also a part-owner of the cooperative bookstore “Normal’s”, which distributes Apathy Press and other small press books.  Danny Lindensruth is a tattoo artist who has tattooed at least eight poets published with Apathy.  Dr. Arthur Clark, a medical researcher is an occasional Apathy benefactor.

Most of these people identify themselves as poets.  While some of the ways people earn a living are obviously involved with literature and words, it isn’t the primary bond that exists between the people published by Apathy and participating in Apathy-sponsored readings.  The primary bond is self-identification as poet.  The act of writing and performing poetry in a public space; the creation of a shared experience outside or next to the world of money-making, connects, builds, and maintains a network of friendships, acquaintances, and animosities.

Carl Watson, Sal Salisin, Jennifer Blowdryer, Les Bridges, Gail Schlike, and John Delaney live in New York.  Danny Lindenstruth and Bill Moriarty live respectively in San Francisco and Berkeley.  Eric James lives in Havre de Grace, MD and Charles Curtis Blackwell lives in Washington DC.  The poets from New York, Lindenstruth and James occasionally come to Baltimore for literary and/or social occasions.  Lindenstruth and James have families in Baltimore and Bill Moriarty maintains correspondence.

Apathy Press Poets survives despite geographical distances that separate one person from another and differences in occupation. In addition to what people do for a living, expressive forms other than writing and performing poetry include designing covers to the texts, playing music, painting, making personal religious icons, and drama.  In contrast to occupation, which is the primary source for monetary income, these expressive forms are the primary means for the creation of self-identity and sharing in that creation.  Like the covers and titles of their books, the poets design and select their own tattoos.  Danny Lindenstruth tattooed the poets and others who “hang out” in bars, clubs, readings, and social events frequented by artists and musicians.  Danny as a tattoo artist is trusted by his fellow-poets.  He says that he sees no difference between his work as a tattoo artist and as a poet.  He is tattooed from neck to feet.  He says he’s “putting a poem together on my skin.  When it’s done maybe I’ll be able to put it all together…”  He likens tattooing to a spiritual experience.   Malco Mitchell has two tattoos; one “traditional” anchor around which reads “Mom” and “Dad”, and one with two overlapping circles which according to him has traditionally meant “never give up” to hobos.  Diventi, laughingly called his tattoos (on one shoulder an overhead view of a brain with wings on either side, with the words “Apathy Press Poets – Baltimore”  printed around it; on the other shoulder a side view of the brain with wings – both which are used as Apathy Press logos on books, announcements and T-shirts), “advertising.  This is where it all happens – freedom of expression”.

Chris Toll’s tattoo, similar to Carl Watson’s tattoo is a “sacred bleeding heart” over his left breast.  He says, “I wanted to be different.  I don’t know why.  It was a bonding with Daniel.  The more people you know with tattoos, the more you want one.  I wanted to put it in a secret place.  I wanted to feel special.  Not flamboyantly special.  Carl Watson’s tattoo set a fire to my heart.”  According to Danny, this tattoo represents “the resurrection of the spirit.”  Sandie Castle has two tattoos; an orchid on her left bicep and an eye on her right thigh.  Both cover tattoos she received as a teenager, “battle scars of mistakes of my life which I hid like clothing.”  Sandie liked Danny’s writing and “understood he was interested in not just having tattoos, but in the process of tattooing…it meant something to him…it was a real exchange.”

Whatever the decision that determined the tattoo or the design of the tattoo, it seems it is, like the book covers, clothing, and calling oneself a poet – a mark of identity, also a bond. The tattoo is, like written poetry, an indelible impression, a “bid for immortality.”  Not unlike the graffiti “writers” in New York, who see the results of their efforts (their individual marks) travel through the city on subway cars, the poets’ bodies are vehicles carrying marks literally baring their individual stamps wherever they go.  The tattoos may also be seen in the light of one choosing to be a marginal person in relation to the dominant culture.  Even as tattoos are slowly becoming more acceptable in the mainstream culture, they have traditionally been the “possessions” of bikers, homosexuals, prostitutes, sailors and soldiers.  These outsiders have an image of toughness in common.  This “toughness” both attracts people to each other as a sign of recognition and repels others who do not share toughness as an acceptable value.  Apathy Press defines itself as being marginal.  Diventi says “Apathy Press Poets are the Hell’s Angels of poetry.”

The titles of the broadsheets and chapbooks published under Apathy Press are reflections, not only of the continuing desire to have control over one’s identity, one’s individuality, but the humor that embodies conversations and attitudes towards organized religion, politics, sex, financial success, and oneself.  Mockery, self-mockery, sarcasm, irony, irreverence, and scatology illuminate some of the titles; Punch’s Triumphant Entry Into Sodom, I Don’t Know Dick About The Religious Experience, Under Heaven’s Heel, Reactionary Classics, Silence of the 7th Veil, Thank God for the Lowlife, To Hear This Message Again Press #10, The Future is Repetition of Ancient Worlds, Cyclic Anarchy, Living for the Ecstasy Sect, Confessions of an Aspirin Eater, Blue Confessions, How to Write a Resume / Vol. 11 (How to Make a Good Impression), Coffee, Call Me Later or Call Me Joe, God is, Tinytown, Pencildick, How and Why Book of Resurrection, Feel Sorry for the Rich, and CASA DE CACA.

The titles are manifestations of a collaging of popular American culture.  By breaking down and recombining symbols of the dominant culture, jokes are made out of the already exaggerated headlines and stories of tabloid newspapers.  They are proclamations, bits and snatches of advice, mock historical descendants of literary masterpieces.  The poets appropriate the subject of religion and reinvent it for themselves.  In this sense the titles are, like tattoos, personal marks.  They symbolize poetry as entertainment and as a source of cultural criticism.  The titles of the texts are further raids into mainstream culture.  They are distinctive incisions into the skin of one transferred into the next.  As titles, they are on the outside of texts, functioning as badges, as projections of individual personae, at once keeping people at a distance and inviting them in.  The name “Apathy” itself was adopted from the mass media’s characterization of the American electorate in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Considering the amount of energy required over a long period of time to sustain a publishing house without funds and relatively substantial debt, it’s an ironic name.

Just as the choice of clothing, tattoos, and the naming of texts are recreating, self-defining acts, the appropriation of religious symbols is the invention of what Chris Toll call “new gods”.  The covers of the texts often contain collages of Judeo-Christian or Hindu symbols.  Some of the poets and supporters of Apathy make alters in their homes out of various religious icons. Chris Toll makes “monsters out of religious figures”.  Dan Van Allen, who supports Apathy by attending readings and helping to set them up, has an altar in his house consisting of candles and voodoo images he brought back from a trip to Haiti.  Sandie Castle constructs “fetishes” based on “religious objects, stones, bones”. Toll, Castle, and Diventi refer to themselves as “recovering Catholics”. The gathering of what Toll calls “flotsam and jetsam” and the rearranging of these object makes a formerly enforced, threatening and remote religion accessible and one’s own.  “Taking old stuff and making new stuff out of it”, as Toll explains, is the act and expression of giving birth to oneself, of inventing new fictions that try to make sense out of old histories.  The physical destruction and rearranging of icons is an expression of the fact that much of the magic in icons comes from the person who is making new meaning of them.

New meanings are also created in the frequent decision to use and/or replace one’s name with a pseudonym.  Danny Lindenstruth likes to be called “Higgs”, Mark Hossfeld changed his first name to “Mok”, Rupert Wondolowski and “tentatively a convenience” are pseudonyms.  Jennifer Blowdryer (she was in a Punk group called “The Blowdryers”) and MADENNY are pseudonyms. The rejection of names that one received at birth also reflects concern over control over one’s identity, for how one wants to be perceived by others. It is also a layer of impenetrability, of avoidance of an “outside” world.  It also functions as a bond between people who share a decision in changing their names.  To make one’s name truly one’s own.  The pseudonyms function as a means of freeing oneself psychologically from the dominant culture in which the original naming took place.

Friendships are often expressed in the metaphor of family.  Often people great each other with “brother”, “sister”, or “bubba” (which according to Diventi is a southern familial term from the “good ‘ol’ boy network”) regardless of age.  The ages of people involved with Apathy range from early to mid-twenties to people in their forties.  In my interviews with Apathy poets it emerged that “kinship”, though no one is actually related by blood, was a term to describe affinity with other people.  The word “bond” also becomes a frequent description of one’s relationship with another, as well as “spiritual connection”.  Among the men there is frequent and close physical contact in bars and at readings.  Although homoeroticism is not an integral part of behavior, it is often the subject of humor.

Relationships between men and women “hanging out” in bars or at readings is often described as “incestuous”; the “scene” as a whole is sometimes called “incestuous”.  The marginal nature of the existence that is shared by the members of the Apathy subculture allows for an informal and familiar atmosphere that is less possible in (the dominant culture).  The relations between men and women is relaxed to an “incestuous” point.  “Casual” sex is not uncommon.  Jokingly, in Apathy, people say, “Everyone has already slept with everyone else.”  The family and incest metaphors are employed often.  It is this informality in friendships and more intimate relations that accounts for much of the attraction to poetry readings and “hanging out” in bars.  The formality that characterizes relationships in the dominant culture is absent at Apathy readings and in the bars where most socializing occurs.  Within Apathy a circle of friends creates a unified world despite the arrhythmic nature of social relations.  While events move from location to location, a spiritual and tribal relationship is, nevertheless, constructed during those events.

The choice of location of Apathy-sponsored readings presents another paradoxical situation.  The site of Apathy readings changes and is dependent upon availability of space and upon the fee required by the owner of the space. An Apathy benefit at BAUhouse “split the door”, taking in half the money collected at the door and giving the other half to Apathy (Tom Diventi).  A reading held at the “The Tell Tale Hearth”, a restaurant-bar across from the Hollins Market in southwest Baltimore, cost $3 at the door.  This was a donation and a jar was passed around.  Ted Getzel, the owner of the bar (and himself a poet who read that evening) did not ask the sponsors, Shattered Wig and Apathy, for a rental fee.  A multimedia event was held at the “14 Karat Cabaret” on Saratoga Street in downtown Baltimore.  The 14 Karat Cabaret required no charge from Apathy Press Poets.  A $5 fee was required at the door.  The paradox lies in the fact that Apathy is often required to hold its readings in places associated with mainstream culture while at the same time its existence is a constant living critique of that culture.

 

All three gatherings displayed continuums despite the changing locations in which they take place.   Invariably Apathy Press readings, as well as many other groups’ readings, do not begin on time.  In fact, the majority of audiences, though aware of the times listed in announcements, do not show up on time.  The length each reader is allotted is rarely adhered to as readers read over their time limit. Usually, but not always, a group of people standing at the back of the room, hall or bar where the readings occur, stand and talk among themselves uninterruptedly.  The audience becomes as much a spectacle as the reading; the boundary between viewer and performer is often blurred.  The lack of punctuality, the arbitrary time limits not adhered to, the apparent obliviousness of a sizeable part of the audience to the poets readings are in direct contrast to values held by the dominant culture.  The absence of formality, an inversion of dominant cultural values, is a release from the daily pressures of a time and money-oriented culture.  This informal, but, deliberate structure inside of an “establishment” setting epitomizes the relationship between Apathy and the dominant culture.

The reading at the 14 Karat Cabaret is a case in point.  “Jack Daw’s Paradise”, a play by Carl Watson, was featured for two nights.  Jennifer Blowdryer and “Batworth” read their poetry, Dan Van Allen showed and described slides of his trip with Carl Watson to Haiti, and the “Motor Morons”, a band, played dismantled and reconstructed machinery.  A jackdaw according to the Oxford English Dictionary is a bird “which frequents church towers, old buildings; noted for its loquacity and thievish propensities”. It is also an Elizabethan term for a fool.  The play is about five people at a bar who have difficulty communicating with each other.  When a psychopath shows up, their inadequacies are further illuminated.  Carl Watson plays a transvestite and Tom Diventi makes a brief appearance as a hermaphrodite who is murdered by the psychopath.

The play was performed in front of people largely familiar with Apathy-sponsored events.  The ambiguity of identity and difficulty in uttering words which are one’s own are the salient features of the play.  Taken as a metaphor, the play and other performances of the evening define the “underground” status of Apathy in relation to dominant culture.  The play reflects the fictions that Apathy press poets create in order to shape an identity.  The play was performed literally “underground” inside a space owned by members of a larger culture. In this environment the play was in part functioning as a mirror image of a “subculture”; crossing social and sexual boundaries expressing ambiguous notions of self, self as a mark, at once impenetrable and a violation of “straight” attitudes. “The Motor Morons” transformed industrial machinery into musical instruments.  The pseudonyms Blowdryer and Batworth sang and chanted their poems.  Van Allen shared his experience in Haiti with the group.  This event, alongside other events, is part of a process of both physically and culturally uniting people and distinguishing them from the dominant culture.  It is part of a constant creation and reinforcement of group identity.  The events sponsored by Apathy offer an alternative way of seeing the world.  Through the inversion of values, beliefs and experiences, an emotional, spiritual and physical release takes place.

Apathy embodies a spiritual opposition to the dominant culture.  It is an attitude of resistance, distrust, and general antipathy.  Through the invention of a language that defies any useful purpose, there is an attempt to bypass, if not transcend, that larger culture.  Apathy Press provides an almost necessarily small mechanism in which disaffected individuals may voice their thoughts, which otherwise would have very few forums. Other small presses also provide forums for a sometimes geographically dispersed community.  Using the term “underground” or “subculture” is not adequate in describing the place Apathy Press Poets have in relation to dominant culture. It seems more accurate to say they live beside it and cross over into it only when necessary and without much enthusiasm.

While Apathy poets often point out that poets are “on the bottom rung” of society, “at the bottom of the totem”, they encourage the image of poets as marginal people in American culture. While this helps in creating a spiritual bond within Apathy, it reinforces popular myths about “suffering” poets and mystifications associated with deviant cultures on the outskirts of the dominant culture.

Apathy is a sanctuary for some people.  Its lack of rigidity, its apparent lack of hierarchy, its professed lack of concern for material wealth and success, oftentimes comes as a relief as escape from urban-industrial society.   But it’s a temporary sanctuary, a vestibule through which an indeterminate number of people come and go.  It is a spiritual railroad station for people who don’t always want to be located or associated with their jobs or in “meaningful”, practical, or utilitarian activity.  It represents a space that is between two worlds; one of acceptance of dominant cultural values and one where those values are abandoned. Apathy’s position is ambivalent. It is a metaphysical place that is used by people as much as it uses and inverts the values of the dominant culture in creating its own images.  It is also a vehicle, always in transit, carrying images and words back and forth from just over the margin of the larger culture.