Poet Bruce Isaacson brings a famed San Francisco press back to life in Las Vegas. January 10, 2005 – Posted in: Uncategorized
Spirit of the age
January 10, 2005
Poet Bruce Isaacson brings a famed San Francisco press back to life in Las Vegas
BY GREGORY CROSBY
PHOTOS BY BILL HUGHES
It was a reverent and unexpected moment, there in the basement studio of a fine old house at the foot of Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles. There, lining the shelves, were leather-bound, three-ring binders filled with the published and unpublished work of the poet David Lerner, who died in San Francisco in 1997. The poems and letters had been meticulously preserved after Lerner’s death by family friends, and now they were sharing this treasure trove for the purpose of including some previously uncollected work in a new book that Lerner’s friend, the poet Bruce Isaacson, was planning on publishing.
But even Isaacson had no idea of the extent or quality of the Lerner archives. A cursory glance revealed so many unseen gems it was hard to believe Lerner hadn’t published them. Above the desk where Isaacson pored through the binders hung a portrait of Lerner, sardonic and bemused, looking away in profile. The painting was based on a photograph of Lerner that served of the cover of his second book, Why Rimbaud Went to Africa, published in 1989. It was only fitting that it presided over the scene, because that book — along with the new selected poems scheduled to appear in April — was published by the small but influential literary press that Lerner and Isaacson started in San Francisco in 1986, and that Lerner himself, a visionary poet who believed in poetry’s ability to transform the world, named Zeitgeist.
Zeitgeist is one of those handy German words that English often can’t do without, and it translates roughly to “spirit of the age.” It was a perfect choice, as Zeitgeist Press captured the spirit of a very particular age: the Café Babar literary scene in San Francisco. The weekly reading series that started in 1985 in a 30-foot-by-30-foot room with wood bleachers and corrugated aluminum siding was itself building on famous past literary scenes: the Beat and San Francisco Renaissance eras of the mid-20th century, where poets like Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Bob Kaufman, Richard Brautigan, Jack Micheline and scores more haunted North Beach coffee houses.
The Babarians, as they were dubbed, extended that tradition in the little back room in the Mission District, a rough-and-tumble scene associated with poets more interested in the life of the streets than with academic groves. “Poetry you can actually read,” was one of Lerner’s mottoes not just for the press but for life itself. And the wildly diverse poets, writers, musicians and performers who came out of the Babar reflect that ethos: Lerner, Isaacson, Julia Vinograd, Laura Conway, Joie Cook, Jack Hirschman, David West, Eli Coppola, David Gollub, Vampyre Mike Kassel, Kathleen Wood and numerous others.
All would go through the baptism of fire that was the raucous audience and peers at the Babar.
“The Babar crowd was pretty merciless,” says Isaacson. “There was no polite applause or lukewarm response. If they loved you, they let you know, and if they didn’t, they really let you know: hoots, whistles, heckling. Even beer glasses would sometimes get tossed at the stage.”
Those poets with thick skin got better, and those who were fully formed burned brightly. All would find a voice through Zeitgeist Press in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“David Lerner and I were partners in the first few books that came out on Zeitgeist,” says Isaacson. “I took care of the business side, acted as the publisher. He did the publicity, and we both edited books by others.”
The press embodied the down-to-earth aspirations of the Babarians.
“A lot of these young urban poets had a huge amount of frustration with the mainstream, academic poetry of the time,” says Isaacson. “A lot of that poetry seemed irrelevant to the daily reality of their lives, and a lot of it seemed humorless and pretentious. We wanted poetry that was direct, not just directed at poets. We wanted something proletarian, more relevant to the street life as we were living it, something that ordinary people could pick up and read.”
The press published dozens of books by poets hungry to reach such an audience. But by the mid-’90s, Zeitgeist went into an eclipse. Lerner had long been beset by various personal problems, including a debilitating work injury. Isaacson, who quickly became the sole motivating force behind Zeitgeist, moved to Las Vegas for personal and professional reasons. And the press — which like all small poetry presses, even quality ones, always kept going on half a wing and a mumbled prayer — became too much for one person to administer.
Though Isaacson never let the press become completely fallow (he continued to issue Vinograd collections), the demands of a new family and business career put Zeitgeist into the background for a decade.
Now Isaacson is bringing the spirit of a previous age into the current one with a vengeance, transforming Zeitgeist into a press that doesn’t just echo the Babar scene but embraces the burgeoning Las Vegas literary scene as well. This month sees the simultaneous publication of three new titles: Vinograd’s Skull and Crosswords represents the press’ Bay Area roots, while poet/police officer Harry Fagel’s Undercover embraces a longtime local favorite; Isaacson himself rounds out the push with Ghosts Among the Neon, his first book in 10 years, and acts as the bridge: a San Francisco poet who finds himself a Las Vegan (by way of Russia, but you’ll have to read the collection to get that story).
How have the new books been received by the more established literary types in Las Vegas?
Well, Red Rock Review Editor-In-Chief Richard Logsdon has embraced the books wholeheartedly, and plans to review each of them in the next issue of the literary journal (published by the English department at CCSN) that he helped found in 1996.
“There’s a reason I’m reviewing the Zeitgeist books,” says Logsdon. “Bruce’s aesthetic is a bit different from ours at the Red Rock Review. We’re probably a little too academic for most folks’ taste.
“Bruce, however, is influenced by the Beats — Ginsberg, Kerouac, di Prima — and I think he’s doing a great service to the larger Las Vegas community.
“I’ve read Zeitgeist books from the beginning, and, sure, the poems aren’t always ‘refined’ or ‘technically accomplished’ or whatever. But they explode with energy, and they’re almost always exciting. I think what [Isaacson is] doing needs to be supported. There should be room for both academic poetry and common-man poetry here in town. That dynamic is something that’s been lacking in Las Vegas, for sure.”
Adds Vinograd, “Any place Bruce lives is going to have poetry. And as soon as you’ve got a batch of poets, things go forward from there.”
Vinograd, who recently received the Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award from the city of Berkeley, has helped Isaacson edit many of the Zeitgeist chapbooks over the years, and currently handles some of the distribution points in the Bay Area. “We’re fellow poets and friends,” says Vinograd, “and we’ve done some wonderful books together, including these new ones.”
Beyond the new books, there’s multimedia projects as well: a CD anthology featuring readings by Babarians, selected from hundreds of hours of tapes of performances, will appear next year, along with a CD by Eli Coppola, one of Zeitgeist’s best poets, whose work is strong, funny, tender and vivid. Sadly, Coppola, who suffered from muscular dystrophy and passed away at a very young age in 2000, represents — along with the Lerner collection — another compelling reason for the revival of Zeitgeist: the legacy of the press and its unique ability to bring truly dazzling poets like Lerner and Coppola to all the audiences who couldn’t fit in Café Babar’s tiny environs. When Lerner’s selected poems, titled The Last Five Miles to Grace, appears in the spring, it will be a testament to a vital and take-no-prisoners poetics.
“Lerner wanted to change the world through poetry,” says Isaacson. “His work was aggressive, but it used humor, empathy and sharp metaphors as weapons against the corruption of the heart that’s the foundation of most evil done in society. He was fierce, and he sought some kind of moral influence on contemporary American culture.”
That spirit lives on in the new titles. Vinograd, recently named poet laureate of Berkeley by the Berkeley City Council, has more titles on the press than anyone else. She earned an MFA at the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, but in her prolific output she identifies with the street life of Telegraph Avenue, celebrating the everyday travails of the down-but-not-out with her characteristic humor, power and skill.
“Julia’s kept a couple hundred thousand books in print by selling them one at a time on the streets of Berkeley,” says Isaacson. “Her work is a kind of wonderful oral history, one of Berkeley from the 1960s through today. It’s extremely entertaining and defines her time and place the way Damon Runyon did for Broadway or Bukowski did for the racetracks and gin mills of Los Angeles.”
Longtime performance poet and Las Vegas Metro officer Harry Fagel continues his gritty, urban sketches in his second book, Undercover. (Fagel’s first book, Street Talk, was published by Zeitgeist in 1999). Fagel’s poems about the mean streets are balanced by his odes to family life and love, resulting in a book that is by turns dark and light, savage and tender.
Isaacson’s collection Ghosts Among the Neon is particularly sweeping in its ambitions, taking the reader through his adventures in Russia and Las Vegas, his transition to fatherhood, and his confrontations with both the ghosts in his own family and the ghosts that haunt the machines of modern American life. The transition from the Bay Area to Las Vegas is the engine that drives not just Isaacson’s book but the revivification of the press itself.
“Las Vegas is still searching for its great voices in poetry,” says Isaacson, “but I believe they’re out there. A new literary scene is happening here even as we speak. Vegas is the latest and greatest major American city, and it will impress itself on history in ways worthy of all the people that have been drawn here to it. It seems these days that some people treat poetry like something trivial, a joke. But I don’t feel that way. I think it’s important what we’re doing.
“Those new Vegas voices will make their own demands, cause their own ruckus, the way the Babarians did. I’m looking forward to seeing it.”
Zeitgeist Press will undoubtedly be a part of that ruckus.
“As David Lerner once wrote, poetry will do whatever the fuck it wants,” says Isaacson. “We don’t have to guide and direct it because it will guide and direct us.”
Zeitgeist Press is holding a poetry reading and publication party at Dead Poet Books (937 S. Rainbow Blvd.) on Jan. 15 at 6 p.m. Poets slated to read include Lenadams Dorris, Nakachi Clark, Harry Fagel and Bruce Isaacson. Admission is free. For more info, call 702-227-4070 or go to www.zeitgeist-press.com.