There are No Second Acts
in American Lives
Had Lewis Warsh never written a poem, novel, memoir, short story, made a collage (often juxtaposing letters, words, and pictures), artist’s book, or taught a poetry workshop, his influence on contemporary American poetry as an editor and publisher alone would be as significant as say, Donald Allen, whose anthology The New American Poetry: 1945-1960 (Grove Press, 1960) was a formulative and sustaining influence on Warsh as a very young poet.
Born in the Bronx in 1944, Warsh committed much of Allen’s anthology to memory, and was especially fond of the Black Mountain and San Francisco Renaissance poets he discovered there. Warsh had not one, but two, major presses and magazines during the mimeo revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, and continued as an editor and publisher until his death in 2020, nearly 55 years.
The first was Angel Hair, which he co-edited with his first wife, poet Anne Waldman; and the second was United Artists, which he co-edited with his second wife, poet Bernadette Mayer. In the world of fine printing, it is not uncommon for a husband and wife (or domestic partners) to run a press together. Think of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press, Mary Laird and Walter Hamady’s Perishable Press Limited, or Alastair Johnston and Frances Butler’s Poltroon Press. But in the mimeo revolution, there were very few magazines edited by couples who were both first-rate poets (Diane di Prima and LeRoi Jones’ The Floating Bear being a notable exception), let alone twice.
The origin of Angel Hair as described in The Angel Hair Anthology (Granary Books) reads like a fairy tale. In 1965, Warsh and Waldman met at a reading by Robert Duncan at The Berkeley Poetry Conference and felt immediate chemistry. Waldman (also a New York native) was studying at Bennington College at the time, and Warsh was working for the Welfare Department in New York City. Warsh rented an apartment at 33 St. Mark’s Place and Anne moved in during June 1966 shortly after her graduation.
Their apartment became a regular gathering place for poets and artists, in part, because it was so close to The Poetry Project. They hired a letterpress printer named Ronnie Ballou from Williamstown to print Angel Hair because Anne worked with him on Silo, a journal she edited at Bennington. For three years, Warsh and Waldman lived together and edited Angel Hair, producing six issues, each with a different color cover of gorgeous paper produced by the Fabriano Paper Mills in Italy. They published their own poems, as well as those by Pierre Reverdy, Lee Harwood, Charles Stein, Ted Berrigan, Aram Saroyan, Jim Brody, John Ashbery, Dick Gallup, Ron Padgett, Joanne Kyger, Ted Greenwald, Lorenzo Thomas, Bill Berkson, Clark Coolidge, and many more.
When a young editor starts a new poetry magazine, it is often used as a calling card to introduce themselves to older, more established, poets. Having the work of a major poet in a little magazine somehow validates that of lesser-known poets, and name recognition entices readers to take a chance on a new magazine. But Angel Hair magazine and books were different, because they were primarily devoted to Warsh and Waldman’s peers, most in their twenties living on the Lower East Side or in the Bay Area. What is perhaps most astonishing about Angel Hair is that most of the poets they were publishing were writing significant poems in their twenties and many continued for the rest of their lives. Everyone wants to be a poet when they are young, but how many are still writing, and writing well, 50 years later? There is an undeniable magic in these books and magazines that extends beyond the individual poems, into a community of writers and artists who sustained friendships and ongoing collaborations for decades.
By the late sixties, Warsh and Waldman’s marriage had dissolved, but they both went on publishing books under the Angel Hair imprint until 1978. For the most part, the Angel Hair books reflect the editorial direction of the periodical. Although we would not characterize them as necessarily “artsy,” the books (and occasional broadsides), took on a wide variety of formats. Some took the form of a standard side-stapled mimeograph, while others were commercially printed offset and smyth-sewn, and there were a few printed letterpress by fine California printers at the Cranium and Grabhorn-Hoyem Presses. And the roster of artists who produced the covers for the books is astonishing: Alex Katz, Joe Brainard, Donna Dennis, Jim Dine, Philip Guston, Rudy Burkhardt, George Schneeman, Rosemary Mayer, Hannah Wilke, James Rosenquist, Greg Irons, and others.
Warsh also edited many issues of The World out of The Poetry Project in New York City, as well as The Boston Eagle with William Corbett and Lee Harwood, out of Boston in the early 1970s. By 1977, Warsh and Mayer co-founded United Artists magazine. The couple had left New York City for Lenox, Mass. to raise a family, and the magazine was, in part, a way to keep in touch with other poets while living a relatively domestic, small-town lifestyle. Piece of Cake (Station Hill Press) is a collaboration between Warsh and Mayer from August, 1976, that chronicles their experiences of daily life as young parents and poets in the Berkshires (see Michael Ruby’s Editing Lewis Warsh https://wordpress.boogcity.com/2021/03/26/lewis-warsh-michael-ruby/).
The first issue of United Artists featured an excerpt of this collaboration, as well as individual works by Mayer, Warsh, and their neighbors, Clark Coolidge and Paul Metcalf. Among the mimeo magazines of the day, United Artists was unique because they chose to publish long works by a few poets in each issue, rather than one or two pages by many poets.
In a way, United Artists is more defined than Angel Hair. The editors, and most of the contributors are older, more connected to other poets. Also, the long-form conceptual writing that was of particular interest to Mayer, was hard to represent in a couple of pages, so Warsh and Mayer would offer a generous selection of longer works, often over the course of several issues, as in the instance of Clark Coolidge’s Weathers which appeared in half-a-dozen issues. As conceptual poems, such as Mayer’s own Midwinter Day and Memory grew to book-length proportions, it seems only natural to offer more space for excerpts in journals, while there were also plenty of discrete works published in United Artists.
Having a large apartment, there was space to set up a mimeograph in the living room, so it was possible to crank out a new issue overnight. Warsh and Mayer published 18 issues of United Artists together, the last in 1983. Poetry, as well as the way it was printed, changed drastically in the 1980s, and the mimeograph revolution came to an end. In a domestic collaboration like this, one might wonder about the division of labor and finances. Who cooks dinner while the other one types? Who chooses which poem? Who takes the kids to the library while the other takes the new magazine to the post office?
Warsh continued to publish books under the United Artists imprint after his separation from Mayer, until he passed in the autumn of 2020. Editing and publishing United Artists solo for almost four decades, Warsh continued to publish his peers, and took a strong interest in publishing younger writers as he got older. After United Artists magazine, as far as we know, most of the books were typeset on a computer and printed offset, and distributed by Small Press Distribution. United Artists authors include Barbara Henning, Hannah Weiner, Matvei Yankelvich, Lisa Rogal, Bobbie Louse Hawkins, Mitch Highfill, Tony Iantosca, Bernadette Mayer, Anne Waldman, Jim Brodey, Charlie Vermont, William Corbett, and many others. Warsh also published several of his own books, including A Free Man, Information from the Surface of Venus, The Origin of the World, Reported Missing, and The Maharajah’s Son.
When Warsh sent us books in the mail, they were often carefully wrapped in colored tissue paper. We will miss him, and his many, various gifts, to the world of poetry.