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The Flame Keeper: Lewis Warsh by Brenda Coultas


I first met Lewis in 1994, upstairs in the office of The Poetry Project where I had just started working after finishing my MFA at the Naropa Institute (University). He said that he heard I was a prose writer, not a poet. Hmm, was I a kindred spirit? Was I a novelist in disguise?

Lately the Lewis in my mind’s eye is from Larry Fagin‘s Portraits & Home Movies (1968-69). He’s about 20, shoulder-length dark hair, parted on one side. Skinny. Glasses. Are they rectangular or square? He’s performing a sweet burlesque, which works nicely with the added sound, featuring the song “The Boy from New York City” in the background.

Another Lewis, early 30s, appears in a home movie made at Naropa’s summer faculty housing, amid some shots of Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and others (Greg Masters, Scenes from Naropa University, June 1978). There are glimpses of Lewis with his then partner Bernadette Mayer. They trade off with daughters Marie and Sophie (son Max yet to come). Walking. Resting. Walking. Keeping baby and toddler entertained and dodging a film crew that is shooting something, maybe a documentary on the Beats. Last shot, about 10 seconds: Bernadette and Lewis sitting on the grass, children on laps, joined by poet Michael Brownstein—a portrait of third generation Beat, Black Mountain, San Francisco, and New York School poets.

Lewis always seemed bemused by human comedy, and as many of his former students have pointed out, he really listened to you. I wasn’t his student, although I think of him as a mentor.

He taught by example, by his dedication to making, distributing, and publishing within a community organized around poetry. When I began writing this essay, I reached out to a few poets who I knew to be part of the fabric of his writing cloth. I included their voices within this essay because they are essential to understanding his legacy as a major figure in the early years of The Poetry Project, and as a second-generation New York School poet.

The universe would unexpectedly deliver books to my mailbox, but really it was Lewis who believed in letting books live in the minds of readers, even if it meant giving many away for free, or nearly for free. I remember buying two copies (I regret not buying more) of Hannah Weiner’s The Fast, for 5 bucks each.

His love of reading; something so simple yet almost quaint these distracted days. 

Looking at a program for “A Bernadette Mayer Celebration, May 6, 2015,” I am reminded that I read right before Lewis. We often read at events related to Bernadette’s work and I saw him a few times at gatherings at her house, a decommissioned church in upstate New York that she shares with her longtime partner Philip Good.

We gossiped after readings, but I won’t spill the beans

As director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Long Island University Brooklyn, where he taught until 2020, Lewis forged lines that connected The Poetry Project community to a new generation of experimental poets. I read frequently in his Writers on Writing series, where I was made to feel welcome by the warmth of his students, and enjoyed wine and food in a comfortable room that seemed to float over downtown Brooklyn.

It was hard for him to leave us.

With Anne Waldman, he co-founded Angel Hair Books in 1966, and published some of my favorite second-generation New York School classics like Joe Brainard’s I Remember, Bob Rosenthal’s Cleaning Up New York, Bernadette’s The Golden Book of Words, and his own The Maharajah’s Son. Along with his works of poetry and fiction, I think of all the books Lewis helped to manifest in the world. As Anne told me:

This is his legacy: to be exemplar, which in his case grows out of a passion for poetry, an insatiable longing for the complexities and relational dynamics of language as it is occurring, patterning inside the brain. Poetry and poetics as Desire, as mind expansion. Witty, elegant, surreal, meandering.

On my table, a stack of books from United Artists, which he co-founded with Bernadette in the late 70s, and which has released more than 50 books to date, including the recently published Digigram by his dear friend and colleague, poet Barbara Henning, who in a recent email recalled:

The night before we met at Greenwood, I was reading Lewis’s poems, looking for a shorter work that spoke to his mortality, to our mortality “Chain Reaction” published in 1987. I was moved by the prayer in the opening of the poem and then the awareness that comes throughout. “Contrary to what others say the center of life—where you live—lies outside yourself, / observant and free.” And then “The center of life exists twenty thousand leagues beneath the sea where mountains of volcanic ash were recently discovered.” As we stood in our circle and read our poems and memories, I looked up over the crematorium at the gothic arches and suddenly from the chimney, a cloud of black smoke. And I thought to myself, Goodbye dear Lewis. You loved and you were loved. 

Lewis never put his ego on the table, always promoting others through United Artists Books. He published works by some of his students, both from the MFA program and from his legendary long-running workshop in Manhattan. Some that come to mind are Shut Up Leaves by Tony Iantosca, Morning Ritual by Lisa Rogal, Don’t Drink Poison by Sarah Anne Wallen,  Toot Sweet by Daniel Owen, and Early Exits by KB Nemcosky.

I remember many United Artist Books parties in the 1990s and early 2000’s, for Lewis’s longtime students and friends Bill Kushner and Daniel Krakauer. As his former student, the poet Valerie Deus put it, “I’ve spent the last 18 years trying to recreate that sense of community and trust that Lewis had in his classes.  Now I preach it to my students: Find your tribe, find people who support your work, ask questions, be generous.”

Lewis advocated keeping an archive of letters, cover art and manuscripts as a back-up retirement plan.  He knew that being a poet is always a precarious position.

****

The younger Lewis with whom I opened this essay is so present because I’ve been reading Piece of Cake, an amazing collaboration between him and his then partner Bernadette Mayer, two brilliant poets whose influence on a younger generation has only amplified over time. This astonishing journal, in which each wrote on alternate days, covers August of 1976, in Lenox, Massachusetts. Both were 31 and were new parents to 8-month-old Marie (now a historian and writer), who helped bring Piece of Cake to print 44 years later through Station Hill press.

Like a lazy August in many places, not much happens in Piece of Cake.  His parents come for a visit, Lewis and Bernadette visit Clark and Susan Coolidge. Some of Lewis’s students come up for a weekend and music lovers descend upon the Tanglewood music festival in Lenox for weekend concerts. The action takes place internally, as both poets navigate the domestic landscape of gender, parenting, and expectations.

I love meeting Lewis at this stage of his life and thinking about his friendships and sojourns among poets in Bolinas and San Francisco (Joanne Kyger, Tom Clark, Charlie Vermont, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Robert Creeley among others), and how this community of artists and poets—however loosely defined—became a rich source of support and material.

One of the pleasures found in Piece of Cake is a sense of knowing you are exactly where you want to be. From Lewis’s entry for August 23rd:

We lie in bed after midnight and the day passes through my head like a series of steps leading to a moment of clear light in the darkness. The streets are clean and empty, there’s a cool breeze lifting the curtains. If you’re frightened you know it’s only your thoughts leading out beyond the tops of the trees to a world that doesn’t exist as you rest your head on my stomach and fade off soundlessly like water lapping against the sides of a gondola. As the lights burn out, language begins to open its doors, revealing a list of words––“escutcheon” “vertiginous” “accouchement” “uxorious”––which can’t be defined in time or space but pass into another dimension which our bodies create, half-asleep, but no less determined to be specific. The words are like tools of various size and density, like inanimate objects, like artifacts under glass, and bluntly define themselves by meaning more than we say they do. The meanings we give them form an aura above us while we sleep, like the mosquito netting we placed over Marie’s crib in Vermont. “I think it just bit me.” We don’t talk in our sleep. I dream about the book I was reading earlier in the night, Pack My Bag, by Henry Green. If the phone rings in the middle of the night, don’t answer. My parents have arrived safely back in New York, and I can imagine them in their apartment, seventeen stories above 8th Avenue. I make a small triangle in the corner of the page, folding it over to keep my place, close the book, remove my glasses and turn off the light.

Amid the quotidian is satisfaction. The bliss of time to write, a desk, a window, a sturdy typewriter, maybe there’s a mimeo machine for making journals and pamphlets, whose whereabouts you know of. This is a poet’s dream and sometimes nightmare, time and space to write, good food, sexy companionship, and a beautiful child.

Out of the Question: Selected Poems (1963-2003), dedicated to his wife, the playwright and teacher Katt Lissard, offers a rich selection of Lewis’s work and is, if you never met him, a good place to start to get to know him. The way he engaged in the process of putting together this selection says something about his ethos, as the book’s co-editor Michael Ruby noted in our conversation:

One of the most important decisions about any selected poems is the time period. I wanted Lewis to cover his whole life as a poet, from 1963 to the present, but he was afraid that would burn sales of his two most recent poetry books—and thus their publishers. He wanted to end in the late 1990s. I disagreed and eventually persuaded him to go until 2003 with “The Flea Market in Kiel,” arguing it stood in well for his later poetry and further developed the theme of his “writing long poems divided into numbered sections.” If limiting the book’s time period was a mistake, it’s instructive to look at Lewis’s reason: He cared about his publishers. He cared about people. Lewis stood out when it came to caring about people.

From the Selected, the graceful “Sonnet” a poem about merging not just body but also mind, with a lover. The expression of vulnerability is breathtaking:

If I turn into you

By force of habit, din

Of luck, or just

Normally, as the occasion warrants

Not romantically, but because

Sifting through myself, I find

I’m thinking your thoughts, and you mine,

So it’s possible both to inhabit

The body that sleeps beside you

And concise fragments of the person

You thought you were, part in-

Decision, part desire, part heavenly

Love, or all these things

Scattered over the earth, like sparks.

***

Lewis was a collector of lines, letting them accumulate in a notebook until he had enough to shape into a narrative. I see his influence on my own work, The Tatters, where I use lines, some repurposed, to create a mood or a collage of images:

Cleanly folded paper lying in street

A job request for urine

I close my eyes

A broth of steaming piss

Lewis is a city poet, and that energy propels his narratives forward. The experience of reading “The Secret Police” (The Origin of the World), with its dash of noir, is like opening your door on 2nd avenue and becoming one of the voices. You watch the lights in the apartment across the street. You note the comings and goings of mysterious neighbors. An “I” tapes a priest paying off a prostitute and carries a gun. You are meeting yet another incarnation of Lewis.

There’s an alchemy within the structure of the poems from The Origin of the World, that Anselm Berrigan described to me so precisely:

I became very interested in what he was doing with that structure of double-spaced sentence-lines that would spread out across 4-8 pages, accumulate and shift gears, pitch a thematic point and let it recede or transform, and collect details and pronouns in such a way that character and environment could get bound up together with a kind of measured suddenness, if that make sense . . .  I read this short interview with Lewis in a zine from a late 90s Naropa summer (don’t remember the title) in which he talked about gathering material for these poems and said quite precisely that “the art is in the arrangement.” That phrase stuck with me—I started to hear it in his voice when I wanted to think about how it could mean in relation to different works and processes. My book Primitive State is basically an 80-page variation on that structure spun out of my addled mind just after Sylvie was born.

**

Watching Lewis, I witnessed steadiness and discipline, a commitment to poetry and to living within an artistic community, with its tangled and complicated personal histories and back stories. Lewis and Bernadette, Anne and Lewis, Ted and Alice, Allen and Peter, and others.

Despite fractures, this community endured by virtue of its formative members, chief among them Lewis, who did the work of curating, fundraising, publishing, and teaching by example. His enduring curiosity helped hold open the entrance to this community. And his love, dedication and gentleness tended the flame that one of Lewis’s own mentors, Allen Ginsberg, described as “like a red hot coal” at the center of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, which remained a poetic home for Lewis and the work he both made and nurtured. 

Editor’s Note: The cover image features lines from Lewis’s poem “Donatello” installed by the collective Art Beyond Walls in honor of a reading and workshop with Lewis Warsh and Barbara Henning in Pensacola, Florida 2016.



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