Editor’s note: Ron Kolm is a man of many trades and talents, not least of which is poet.
In the interview, John Wisniewski talks with Ron Kolm about the CBGB’s, favorite poets, writing inspiration, and getting a vinyl recording of James Joyce’s work from Patti Smith.
I was a Philly boy who went to college in Reading, Pennsylvania, way back in the old days. I was a history major, with a large library of history books in my parents’ house. When I got to Reading, I met the woman who I would later marry, and she told me, almost
right off the bat, that she wrote poetry, so I got into writing through reading her work. This was also the period when the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan were all very prominent in pop culture, and all of them wrote lyrics, which to me was poetry, very well. They influenced me then, and their work still does. I switched from being a history major to a lit major, and I had a poetry professor who really encouraged my writing — I know how bad it must have been, but I’m still grateful. When I graduated the Vietnam War was at its peak, and I got a deferment by volunteering to become a community organizer in VISTA. This got me out of the draft and I spent a year living and working in a tiny impoverished collection of shacks in Johnson City, Tennessee. We organized a garbage pickup, and tried to hook folks up with social services, but there wasn’t much else to do during the terrible winter we spent there, but write.
I’ve spent most of my adult life working in bookstores. When I was in college before graduation, and VISTA, I worked in a bookstore in Reading, Pennsylvania. That’s where I discovered the Beats and began reading and collecting their work. I loved the City Lights Pocket Poets series and New Directions paperbacks. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was my favorite poet at that time. When my stint as a community organizer came to an end, I moved to New York City. I tried to get almost any kind of job, but because I had been an organizer, most businesses thought I would become a union organizer and they wanted no part of that. I lived in Hell’s Kitchen in a cheap studio apartment, but it finally got to a point where the only way I could get money to pay the rent was to sell off parts of my library to the Strand Bookstore. This was when the father, Benjamin Bass, was still alive. Fred Bass, his son, got to know me and offered me a job every time I stopped by with a bag of books to sell, but as the salary at that time was sixty dollars gross a week, I said no, until I ran out of books, then I said yes. I worked there for six years; from 1969 to 1975. I only worked with Patti Smith for a short while. She had worked at Scribner’s Bookstore on Fifth Avenue. I really have only two stories to tell about her, and one of them is in Bob Eckstein’s book of New Yorker cartoon bookstore stories, Footnotes. She rather aggressively approached me holding a vinyl record and said: “Someone told me I looked like him, but that’s bullshit. I heard you like him, so you can have it.” She pressed a copy of the Caedmon recording of James Joyce readings into my hands, turned and split. I did hear her read her work on a rooftop in Soho with a guitarist playing behind her. As for Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell: I was at CBGB’s the first night they played there as the band Television. I was with my first wife, and we had a fight and took it outside. I saw Tom the next day and he asked me why I had left. I asked him how the heck he knew that and he answered: “I can see everything from up there!”
Well, to go back to my first bookstore job, it was there I discovered the Surrealists, and came to love their work, and that led me to the dadaists, who changed my life. They had been influenced by a war, and I had been, too. In the early 1980s I was managing a bookstore in Soho, named New Morning after the Bob Dylan album. A quick aside: it was owned by High Times magazine. I would have to trek up to their office and hope that someone was straight enough to sign the checks I needed to send to publishers so I could buy more books for the store. Anyway, I met a number of people in the store who would bring by books and magazines to sell on consignment. I also got to know several of the neighbors well; among them were Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs and Steve Dalachinsky, the poet, who just passed away. They both were in the store almost every day. I met Mike Golden there, who was editing a magazine entitled Smoke Signals, and bart plantenga, a d.j. at WFMU radio station. We also hooked up with Matty Jankowski, who had a tiny mag called Perpetual Motion, and was one of the main movers and shakers in the tattoo scene. He passed away recently and I wrote a piece about him for Sensitive Skin magazine. Along with the British writer, Max Blagg, we started hanging out in Tin Pan Alley, a dive bar in Times Square. We expanded rather quickly, and two of the new members, Jim Feast and Alfred Vitale, wanted to do actions based on Hakim Bey’s TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone). Hakim Bey posits the notion of liberating a public space, doing an action, and then splitting before the police show up. Our actions were all somewhat literary in nature. We would protest the New Yorker‘s awful poetry with a picket line every December 7th, and we would congregate on the Brooklyn Bridge every September 13th and read erotic poetry to workers as they walked home from their day jobs. Many of them got what we were doing and would hang out with us for a while. We only stopped doing that one after 9/11. The police presence was daunting. We also took over the New School and mounted a series of anti-seminars. Since then we’ve hooked up with the radical publisher Autonomedia and put out a line of books. We still do group readings, but many of the venues we performed in over the years, mainly in the East Village, have disappeared; victims of gentrification.
I still do like many of the poets I read when I was in college, and working in the bookstore in Reading. It was during this period I read Yeats and Eliot, and I still love both of them. I admired Ginsberg, but to be honest, I liked early Gregory Corso much more. Gasoline and Vestal Lady on Brattle are still two of my favorite books. I’m not as thrilled with his later book, The Happy Birthday of Death. When I read it, I had the sneaky suspicion that he had been influenced a little too much by Mr. Ginsberg. The poems in it are longer, and less focused, than his earlier work. A quick story: I was working in a bookstore on the corner of West 10th Street and Bleecker in the West Village, and one night when I was sitting at the cash register I noticed a very disheveled man bumping into the front door, and then almost falling as he entered the store. I started to walk towards him, asking him to please leave just as the owner of the store ran up from the basement and yelled at me to stop: “That’s Gregory Corso! He’s here to give me poems for a zine I’m about to publish!” I apologized heartily and slunk back to my seat behind the register, rather embarrassed. After that, I worked at one of the best bookstores in the city, Coliseum Books, for a long while, and continued to buy books of poetry, though I was more interested in fiction during that period. When that store went out of business, I was lucky enough to get a job at Posman Books in Grand Central Station. I was put in charge of the poetry section, and I got a lot more into it during that period. Anne Sexton’s book, The Awful Rowing Towards God, became my favorite book. The last poem in that book still knocks my socks off. I also discovered Bertolt Brecht’s Manual of Piety, which I recommend highly! Also, I am a member of a poetry collective, brevitas. There are some eighty members and we share poems with the group online twice a month, on the first and fifteenth, and the work has to be fourteen lines or less. I would like to mention some of the poets who are members of this group who I admire: Don Yorty, Jeff Wright, Amy Barone, Anton Yakovlev, Francine Witte and George Wallace, among so many others. I try to attend several open mics in the course of a week, and every now and again, I get to be a featured reader. The two most recent features I did were at the William Carlos Williams Center in New Jersey, and a Monday night reading at KGB in Manhattan.
Almost all of the Unbearables are writers, so looking for ways to express ourselves via publishing was pretty much a given. Our first group effort was populist in nature, which makes sense: we constructed assembling magazines. The original assembling magazine, as far as I know, was put together by Richard Kostelanetz. Stephen Paul Miller took that idea and turned it into The National Poetry Magazine of the Lower East Side. We would gather on the second floor of the Cedar Tavern on University Place and put stacks of our pages on the tables, then walk around putting together copies of the zine. Someone, usually me, would sit at the end table and staple them together, and, voila, an instant publication. We would then read our pieces to the group. This went on from roughly 1985 to 1994, and there were over twenty issues. As time went by it became clear that the main editors of this mag were Unbearables; Jim Feast, Carol Wierzbicki and myself, so in 1995 we changed the name to The Unbearables Assembling Magazine, and continued on until 2003. There were other assembling magazines that borrowed this concept and did editions later on: Eve Packer’s What Happens Next, Tom Savage’s Tamarind and Dorothy Friedman’s White Rabbit, which just did a John Ashbery / Colette Inez issue. During this period in time, we became part of the radical publisher Autonomedia collective, basically through bart plantenga and Dave Mandl. This led to the first Unbearables anthology, The Unbearables, which came out in 1995. There have been five additional anthologies since then. Our satire on the Beats was entitled Crimes of the Beats, but we knew exactly how much like the Beats we were, so you could call that self-satire — that came out in 1999. Our next book was a parody of self-help books called Help Yourself!, and that saw the light of day in 2002. That was followed by our bashing of book reviews — called appropriately: The Worst Book I Ever Read. Of course I was working in a bookstore and was dying to be asked about the worst book I ever read — I would show them our book! Then we sold out and did The Unbearables Big Book of Sex in 2011. And then, of course, 9/11 happened and our world changed forever. The anthology we did following this sadly tumultuous event was titled From Somewhere To Nowhere: The End of the American Dream. From what I had read about world history, the nature of the Roman Empire changed after the first time it got sacked — it lasted several hundred years after that, but on a downward slope as far as influence and power went. I think that this empire is more or less headed in that same direction, and 9/11 is its apogee. The book begins with a chapter on 9/11, and then continues on with a chapter entitled ‘There Goes the Neighborhood,’ followed by ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid,’ then a section on Occupy Wall Street, and it ends with pieces on Mr. Trump. Obviously all of the Unbearables are in it, and we tried to include everyone we knew from the literary scene. The centerfold was curated by the Fusion artist, Shalom Neuman. A second edition of the book came out in 2018, and is stocked by Printed Matter on 11th Avenue, where it continues to sell well.
Being honest, I usually write about things I’ve experienced — things that have happened to me, that I’ve seen on my peregrination through this life. I wrote about my service in VISTA, and about the trips around the United States I took after that. I wrote about my stint working in a factory making plastic widgets when I couldn’t find another job before deciding to move to New York City. I wrote about the Strand when I worked there, and about all the stuff that happened in the various bookstores after that — getting stabbed in the hand, almost getting fired for breaking a toilet, etc. And I was lucky enough, or unlucky enough, to experience the burning of the Lower East Side; and I wrote about that — even now I point out to kids I work with that every one of those little green gardens in the East Village was once a building that burned down — landlords burned them to get the insurance because the rents didn’t cover their costs, junkies accidentally set them on fire when they nodded out. Everyone was stoned in the 70’s. I wrote about that too in a series of stories that came out in a book from Unknown Press, Duke & Jill. And through all of this I documented the relationships I was in as well. The other thing I would like to add is that I always try to find the dark humor in everything that’s going on around me — I look for the coincidences that seem to be part of a sort of cosmic joke — and I try to get it right. After enough beers, I almost think it’s a job I’ve been sent on this planet to do.
I should probably point out how small a neighborhood the 70s/80s/90s East Village was, and how vital a neighborhood it was culturally during that period. There were still art galleries there — Gracie Mansion being about the best of them. And bookstores were much more central to what was happening on the street than they are now. Back then they carried newspapers and magazines: The Village Voice, The Soho News, Art Forum, Bomb, The East Village Eye, Home Planet News, etc. And the one I worked in also carried zines with smaller circulations that reflected the art and literature of that specific time and place: Appearances, Contact II, Redtape, Pink Pages, New Observations, etc. I genuinely felt that what was going on might become important to a larger audience some day, so I made a point of collecting runs of magazines, and books and other publications by local writers and artists. I also saved announcements for readings. As best I can recall, Marvin Taylor. a librarian, became the director of the Fales Collection on the 3rd floor of the New York University Bobst Library some twenty-five years ago. He wanted to build an archive entitled The Downtown Collection, because I think he felt that downtown Manhattan was central to what was going on in the city artistically and politically — and this would include the gay community, too. I think a mutual friend, the book reviewer and critic Vince Passaro, told him about my collection, and Marvin got in touch with me. Also, during that period a professor from Virginia Tech, Robert Siegle, was teaching courses on the reinvention of literature, and he came to NYC to interview Kathy Acker and Lynne Tillman, among others. I ran into him in the bookstore, and we became friends. He eventually published a book, Suburban Ambush, about the downtown scene. He took the title from one of my poems, which was very cool. I think Marvin might have used that book as a guide for some of the material he archived. There is an encyclopedic book that came out of all of this somewhat later: Up Is Up, But So Is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992, which was edited by Brandon Stosuy, and published by NYU Press. There is an online finding aid to my papers, and I continue to take stuff by every couple of months. I have also placed archival materials in SUNY Buffalo, the University of Rochester, Ohio State University, the main New York City Public Library on Fifth Avenue, and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin.