Big Hammer & the press began in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I moved to New Brunswick on July 4, 1986. Eliot Katz was the first New Brunswick poet I met. He was stapling posters around town for an upcoming poetry reading at The Court Tavern featuring Andy Clausen and the Lunar Bear Ensemble. He gave me a poster & encouraged me to come to the show & read in the open reading, which I did. There was no on-going poetry reading series in town at this time. The Roxy series from the early 80s had run its course and was history. I used to ask Eliot when the next poetry reading was every time I saw him. He must’ve gotten tired of me wanting to know when the next reading was all the time, because he encouraged me to start a reading series myself and then he told me how to do it.
I co-founded The Proletkult Poetry Circus at The Court Tavern in March of 1987, with fellow poet Chris Aubry. Bob Rixon was the first featured poet, followed by an open reading. The magazine grew out of the reading series & several other series in NJ, Philly & NYC, including: POETS WEDNESDAY at The Barron Arts Center, founded & run by Edie Eustice (earlier on with Sofran Crotty, later with Joe Weil), Liza Pille’s Tuesday night series at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, Jacko Monahan’s ongoing-for-decades series at The Brighton Bar in Long Branch, Frank Finale’s Without Halos readings in Ocean County, Betsy Robin Schwartz’s series at The Metuchen Public Library, Dave Lancet’s series at The Pipe Line & The Fringe in Newark, Lamont Steptoe’s series at The Painted Bride Arts Center in Philly, Barbara Holland’s series at The Speak Easy, Enid Dame & Donald Lev’s Home Planet News readings at The Cedar Tavern, Yictove’s series at The Knitting Factory, etc. The magazine included poets I had met through these various scenes, as well as poets from around the country who I only knew through the mail.
Big Hammer #1 was published in 1988. I typed it up with a typewriter onto sheets of 11 by 17 inch paper, double-sided, & had it photocopied at a local print shop. Ken Greenley and I used the MACS at The Roost, a free computer lab at Rutgers University, to type up “camera-ready” pages for the chapbooks and magazines. The Roost was open 24 hours, comfortable enough & conducive for stoned & even tripping poets typing up poems at 3 am. I typed Big Hammer # 2 & several chapbooks at The Roost. Big Hammer #2 was printed by my friend Tom Pulhamus, a poet (& later an editor at Long Shot) who worked as an off-set printer at Mike Cote’s Ploughshares Press. Mike let Tom print the magazine on his off-hours for the cost of materials. An enormous labor of love. Ken Greenley used to do guerilla print runs at his various office-temp jobs, printing his mag Half Dozen of the Other on the boss’s dime & time.
There was a vibrant poetry scene in New Brunswick in the 80s & 90s. Big Hammer was one of several New Brunswick-based poetry magazines at that time. There was Arbella, edited by Anthony George & Tom Obrzut, Conceptual Vandalism edited by Doctor Nein, Guillotine Broadside edited by Miriam Halliday & Matt Borkowski, Half Dozen Of The Other edited by Ken Greenley, & Long Shot edited by Eliot Katz & Danny Shot. This was just in New Brunswick. Other notable NJ small press poetry mags of the time, which many of us read & sent work to, include Joe Weil’s Black Swan Review & Anti-Lawn, out of Elizabeth, Herschel Silverman’s Beehive, out of Bayonne, and Richard Quatrone’s Passaic Review.
2) Your publishing endeavors reflect aspects of the poetry zine subculture of the 1980s & 1990s. I don’t know much about that subculture, but what I do know is that it was a confluence for multiple aesthetics, undergirded by a radical DIY poetics and favoring hybridity before “DIY” and “hybridity” were even terms that were bandied about so often. Could you talk about that scene, your role in it, and how it fit into (or didn’t) the broader world of poetry?
The 80s & 90s zine subculture is simply a continuation of what is now called “The Mimeo Revolution” of the 1960s & 1970s. By the 1980s mimeograph machines had been largely replaced by Xerox or photocopy machines. Some folks even refer to the mags produced in the 80s & 90s as “Xerox Zines.” Most of the editors were also poets. Some of my favorite poet-editors from the 1960s & 70s include Tom Kryss (aka T.L. Kryss), Gene Bloom, D.r. Wagner, d.a. levy, rjs, Douglas Blazek, Diane DiPrima, Ingrid Swanberg, John Bennett, Steve Richmond, Ed Sanders, Tuli Kupferberg, Charles Bukowski & Neeli Cherry aka Cherkovski, Marvin Malone, Kell Robertson, A.D. Winans, F.A. Nettelbeck, Allen De Loach, & The Willie.
Three anthologies of 1960s Underground Poetry that I love above the others & return to the most are The East Side Scene edited by Allen De Loach, The Living Underground edited by Hugh Fox, and Pacific Northwestern Spiritual Poetry edited by Charles Potts. These books are fun & taken together they are a master’s class on mid-twentieth-century American Underground Poetry. The 1980s were a fun time to be a small press poet. There was a national network of poets connected by readings, magazines, fliers, posters, word of mouth, & the post office. There were zine-review-zines like Fact Sheet 5. And there was Len Fulton and The Small Press Review, holding it down since the 1960s.
Some seminal underground poetry mags from the 1980s include:
Alpha Beat Soup edited by Dave Christy,Bouillabaisse, Cokefish and Cokefishing In Alpha Beat Soup by Ana & Dave Christy, Planet Detroit by Kurt Nimmo, Poetry Motel by Patrick McKinnon, Big Scream by Dave Cope, Big Fire Proof Box by Joel Kuszai & Chris Ide, Home Planet News by Enid Dame & Donald Lev, ArtCrimes by Steven B. Smith, Ben Guylas, etc, Impetus by Cheryl Townsend, Lactuca by Mike Selender, Guts by Keith Dodson, Fell Swoop by Joel Dailey, Raw Bone by Tom House, and road/house by Todd Moore. (There is a new book entitled Belvidere Books & Guns about Todd Moore & road/house, edited by his son Theron Moore. It contains interviews with some of the folks mentioned here. I published Todd’s chapbook Blind Whiskey & the Straight Razor Blues in 2008).
Some notable mags from the 90s include: Napalm Health Spa edited by Jim Cohn, THE-HOLD/Underbeat Journal by Cait Collins, Driver’s Side Airbag by Michael Halchin, FUCK! by Lee Thorn, & Weird Poetry/American Living Press by Michael Shores & Angela Mark. My friend Bree, of Green Panda Press & Least Bittern Books, created The Gonzo Library of the Indy Outlaw, Whole Books Meat & Ephemera, or The Outlaw Library, for short. Bree & some other friends made a few posts in the beginning, but I think she mainly just set it up so that I could run with it. Bree is a poet-editor from Cleveland in the spirit & tradition of d.a. levy, Daniel Thompson, & Jim Lang.
They were both DIY, long before that phrase was bandied about so often, as you said above. Harvey’s Sun Ra article was first published in a Canadian jazz magazine called CODA in 1975. The article covers Sun Ra’s career till around 1973. The chap book/reprint I published also includes photos of Sun Ra & the Arkestra performing at The Painted Bride Arts Center in Philly, taken by poet-editor Lamont Steptoe of Whirlwind Press. Sun Ra will be relevant as long as musicians improvise, or forever. The Arkestra is his legacy, Afrofuturism, his compositions & recordings & poetry, what he did with the moog, The Outer Space Employment Agency, Space Is The Place!, & his most pertinent question of all: “It’s After The End Of The World! Don’t You Know That Yet?!”
Besides being a pioneer of Underground Comix, Autobiographical Comix & Per-Zines, & an accomplished & widely published Jazz Writer, Harvey Pekar also wrote serious literary essays. Harvey has a character in American Splendor named Herschel whom he describes as a “working class intellectual.” When I met Harvey he thought it was great I was a furniture mover & when we talked on the phone a few years later he remembered that & it was a plus in his book. Not so much a plus in many a snob’s book. Harvey was a working class intellectual supporting himself & later his family as a “flunky file clerk” at a VA Hospital in Cleveland. Harvey said writers should get a “flunky job” that they don’t have to think about & allows more energy for the real work, which is writing. The day (or night) job is just about Survival. Later on after the movie he got many book deals & wrote several graphic-novel-style history & social studies books, often with historian Paul Buhle. Besides a stack of mostly self-published comic books, followed by a stack of big name press hardcover & trade paperback graphic novels, Harvey left a sprawling paper trail of jazz & literary essays in publications as different as DOWN BEAT and B.N. Duncan’s TELE TIMES. Some of Harvey’s Iniquity Press / Vendetta chapbooks, including Sun Ra, are posted on the outlaw library blog.
3) On your website you note Big Hammer (and I assume, Iniquity Press/Vendetta Books) reflects: “a vision of America that is unfathomable to those in the suits & ties and even those with the ponytails and the birkenstocks. His poems are written by auto mechanics and plumbers and ferriers and people who know the difference between fuel injection and carburetors.” Does this mean a Working-Class vision of America? A nonprofessional, non-academic view? A Whitmanesque democratic vista? If so, what does this view offer that other views do not? How does this view connect to your understanding of poetry in general?
That’s not my website. That’s The Outlaw Poetry/Free Jazz Network in France created by my friend Klaus Thiemann. That quote is by poet-editor Mark Weber, of Zerx Press. Very kind of him to say. & yes, sure, it means all that, & the kitchen sink. Throw in a mimeograph machine for good measure. Poems by & for Proles. I don’t know if it’s a view, or stance, so much as a way of life.
Poet-Editor LeRoi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) said something in 1960 that speaks to the rest of your question: “I didn’t especially think that there was any charted-out area in which the poetic sensibility had to function to make a poem. I thought that anything–anything you could grab–was fit material to write a poem on. That’s the way I think about it. Anything in your life, anything you know about or see or understand, you could write a poem about if you’re moved to do it. (….) And I don’t think that there are any kind of standard ideas or sentiments or emotions or anything that have to be in a poem. A poem can be made up of anything so long as it is well made. It can be made up out of any feeling. And if I tried to cut anything out of my life–if there was something in my life that I couldn’t talk about…it seems monstrous that you can tell almost anything about your life except those things that are most intimate or mean the most to you. That seems a severe paradox.”
4) You published Harvey Pekar’s essay on Sun Ra. Could you talk about that book and the relevance of Sun Ra and Pekar today?
They were both DIY, long before that phrase was bandied about so often, as you said above. Harvey’s Sun Ra article was first published in a Canadian jazz magazine called CODA in 1975. The article covers Sun Ra’s career till around 1973. The chap book/reprint I published also includes photos of Sun Ra & the Arkestra performing at The Painted Bride Arts Center in Philly, taken by poet-editor Lamont Steptoe of Whirlwind Press. Sun Ra will be relevant as long as musicians improvise, or forever. The Arkestra is his legacy, Afrofuturism, his compositions & recordings & poetry, what he did with the moog, The Outer Space Employment Agency, Space Is The Place!, & his most pertinent question of all: “It’s After The End Of The World! Don’t You Know That Yet?!” Besides being a pioneer of Underground Comix, Autobiographical Comix & Per-Zines, & an accomplished & widely published Jazz Writer, Harvey Pekar also wrote serious literary essays. Harvey has a character in American Splendor named Herschel whom he describes as a “working class intellectual.” When I met Harvey he thought it was great I was a furniture mover & when we talked on the phone a few years later he remembered that & it was a plus in his book. Not so much a plus in many a snob’s book. Harvey was a working class intellectual supporting himself & later his family as a “flunky file clerk” at a VA Hospital in Cleveland. Harvey said writers should get a “flunky job” that they don’t have to think about & allows more energy for the real work, which is writing. The day (or night) job is just about Survival. Later on after the movie he got many book deals & wrote several graphic-novel-style history & social studies books, often with historian Paul Buhle. Besides a stack of mostly self-published comic books, followed by a stack of big name press hardcover & trade paperback graphic novels, Harvey left a sprawling paper trail of jazz & literary essays in publications as different as DOWN BEAT and B.N. Duncan’s TELE TIMES. Some of Harvey’s Iniquity Press/Vendetta chapbooks, including Sun Ra, are posted on the outlaw library blog.
I like all kinds of music, like I like all kinds of poetry, but I’m real-heavy into Free Jazz. Free Jazz is the music of the streets. A clarion call to action. Listening to Free Jazz inspired me to pick up an alto saxophone & just start playing. I can’t really articulate how jazz influenced my writing or editing, but it definitely influenced my horn playing (which is not jazz or free jazz -becuz it’s not based in the blues-but sound poetry or noise). I named my son after Albert Ayler. I love the music. However, I was writing poetry long before I found Jazz. I’m not a Jazz Poet. The late & much loved Steve Dalachinsky was a great Jazz Poet. He used to write poetry at live jazz shows. He has a 250 page book of poems he wrote at every single Charles Gayle gig from 1987 till 2006 (The Final Nite). THE MANTIS for Cecil Taylor 1966-2009 came out on Iniquity/Vendetta in 2009. Poems written at Cecil Taylor concerts. Pure Spontaneous Combustible Jazz Poetry from a Pure Jazz Poet Soul. Ya can read THE MANTIS for free at the outlaw library…
Here a seven that I enjoy listening to: Spiritual Unity by Albert Ayler, Free Jazz by Ornette Coleman, Ascension by John Coltrane, Humility In The Light Of The Creator by Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, Congliptious by Roscoe Mitchell, & Giuseppi Logan’s first two records on ESP-Disk.
7) One of the books that really stood out in your catalogue was Liberty, Rats and Sandpaper by Hungarian poet Géza Szőcs, translated by Paul Sohar. How did you come to publish this book? What do you find most compelling about this poetry?
Great book of poems. All the books of Hungarian translations by Paul Sohar are published by Irodalmi Jelen Könyvek in Romania. Liberty, Rats And Sandpaper was edited by Zoltán Böszörményi, but Paul came up with that great title. Paul Sohar lives in NJ when he is not in Budapest. He approached me in the 90s & said that Irodalmi Jelen Könyvek needed an American publisher with ISBN numbers to partner with so that the books could be published & distributed in the USA. It’s been an honor to share in this collaboration, but I have to be clear that it is their vision & that they do all the work. All I do is provide ISBNs. Paul is tireless in his work writing & translating urgent poetry.
8) Many of the books you publish are guided by an aesthetic that derives partially from mid-twentieth-century American poetry, especially the Beats, but also the so-called Confessional poets, and the New York School. Could you talk about this aesthetic and also about some of the authors you’ve published?
The Beats, but also Meat poets like Charles Bukowski & d.a. levy. Ted Berrigan a big influence on many poets in Big Hammer, far as The NY School goes, from younger poets (now in their 50s) like Chris Stroffolino, Candace Kaucher, Boni Joi, and Tom Obrzut to his friends & students like Jeffrey Cyphers Wright, Joel Dailey, Joel Lewis, & the late poet-editor Tom Weigel, whose poetry sings in eternity. Some gone poets I’ve published chapbooks by include Donald Lev, Kell Robertson, Andrew Gettler, Allen Johnson, and Ed Galing; all five represented in Big Hammer & The Outlaw Library. May the Muses crank out mimeographed broadsides of their poems & pass them out on street corners in eternity.
Again, it’s an everything including the kitchen sink with a mimeograph machine thrown in for good measure aesthetic. I learned alot about mid-twentieth-century American poetry by reading Walter Lowenfels anthologies. I first read Cleveland poet-editor rjs in Lowenfels’ WHERE IS VIETNAM? I found a copy in a used bookstore in Asheville NC on lunch-break on a long-distance moving job, read it all the way home to Jersey in the cab of the truck. Years later I answered an ad in Factsheet 5 that rjs had placed giving away free copies of Douglas Blazek’s Broken Knuckle Poems, which he and Tom Kryss had published in the 60s. The copy of Factsheet 5 was from the 90s & it was the mid 00s but rjs answered & we traded books & zines generously & eventually published his Collected Poems on Iniquity Press/Vendetta Books. He introduced me to Tom Kryss & we too became friends & put out his book light dark light. This chain of events started by picking up that copy of WHERE IS VIETNAM? Walter Lowenfels was completely egalitarian. His anthologies are a big part of my education. He also turned me on to William Wantling & Olga Cabral, for which I am eternally grateful.
Matt Borkowski is one of the reasons I started Big Hammer in the first place, to publish and promote his poetry. Same goes for Ken Greenley & Michael Pingarron. Three poets from off the streets of New Jersey who have left this realm for parts unknown. Their poems scream from under bridges & from factory floors, scrawled in blood on shithouse walls. Not just those guys, other gone pals as well like Miriam Halliday-Borkowski, Stuart N. Ross, Charlie Mosler, Bob Rixon; all from Jersey, all there in the beginning; along with alive-&-kickin’ poet-pals Joe Weil, Bertha Sanchez Bello, Anthony George, Tom Obrzut, John Lunar Richey, Lamont Steptoe, Chris Stroffolino, Dave Cope. All folks in the first two issues who have continued to be in Big Hammer over the years, creating a kind of core, most of whom have chapbooks &/or trade paperbacks from the press. Some other gone poets from the early days of Big Hammer, but who I never had the pleasure of putting out a book by, include Aisha Eshe, Barbara Holland, & Enid Dame; the magazine made so much stronger by their poetry. That’s only the beginning though. Ya can read the first 18 issues, & issue #21, of Big Hammer for freein The Outlaw Library, and see who else joins the party as time goes on, if you feel so inclined.
9) Your own collection, Fall & All: Book 2, invokes William Carlos Williams. Could you talk about Williams’ legacy, and, also, about New Jersey as a home for poetry?
I love William Carlos Williams. I sent poems to Allen Ginsberg when I was a teenager & he wrote back “Read WCW for complete grounding.” I find myself returning to Spring and All and Descent of Winter all the time. I also really dig Paterson. A man is a city. No ideas but in things. I can’t talk about WCW without also talking about Alfred Kreymborg and OTHERS magazine, which was conceived at Grantwood, an artist’s colony in Ridgefield, NJ, & which Williams helped edit. Kreymborg also put out annual hardcover anthologies, also entitled OTHERS, for a few years. The complete run of OTHERS magazine has been posted online at The Modern Journals Project (modjourn.org). You can also find affordable copies for sale online. It’s an education in early-twentieth-century poetry. Alfred Kreymborg did important work. OTHERS mag had a huge influence on Big Hammer 19 thru 21, as those 3 issues came out roughly one hundred years after OTHERS, & form a trilogy. I was blown away by how relevant these poems from a hundred years ago are today.
New Jersey has been a great home for poetry for me. The list of poetry reading series I ran off earlier, most of which were in NJ, speaks to that. That was just a list of readings I had gone to over the years. There were so many other scenes going on as well. NJ has a rich history, from Walt Whitman to New Jersey has been a great home for poetry for me. The list of poetry reading series I ran off earlier, most of which were in NJ, speaks to that. That was just a list of readings I had gone to over the years. There were so many other scenes going on as well. NJ has a rich history, from Walt Whitman to Williams & Kreymborg to Walter Lowenfels, who lived in Mays Landing, to Allen Ginsberg to Amiri Baraka to Joe Salerno, & all the NJ poets I’ve mentioned in this interview. I’m happy to be from NJ. Rent is kinda high though.
Gonna bring back my zine STREET VALUE. Eventually make more Big Hammers. Books by Beth Borrus, Bertha Sanchez Bello, Jen Dunford-Roskos, Loring Hughes, Katalin Mezey (translated by Paul Sohar), Joe Weil, Dwyer Jones, Tom Obrzut, Anthony George, John Lunar Richey, Damian Rucci, normal, Dave Church & Bob Rixon. That should keep us busy for awhile.
A Walk is a Prayer
a walk is a prayer if taken well,
one foot in heaven,
one in hell;
upon the earth where all have fallen,
a walk is a prayer
“Gently Gently do one confident chore
in front of me lovingly, daily.” (Rilke)
Gently Gently do one confident task
in front of me lovingly, daily.
“Lead me this way near the garden.” (Rilke)
Lead me this way near the garden.
Gently, lovingly, confidently, daily.
Give me nights that are luminous
above the enemy
“A man’s home is his wife.” (Talmud)
Behold our authenticity!
A woman’s home is to face everything–
–Miriam Halliday Borkowski
David Roskos is a people’s publisher, he’s from the old school where you still use a printer and old-fashioned ink, and staples, and wrinkled poems that come in via the mail, and the poems in BIG HAMMER reflect a vision of America that is unfathomable to those in the suits & ties and even those with the ponytails and the birkenstocks. His poems are written by auto mechanics and plumbers and ferriers and people who know the difference between fuel injection and carburetors. Who still find old tires on the side of the road with some good tread still left on them and know how to get them on the rim and tie a come-along belt to cinch it to get the air in (use soap). David Roskos loves poetry and loves making books and loves the written word and he does something about it………….Mark Weber