In The Rebel Café: Interviews with Ed Sanders

In the Rebel Cafe

Edited by Jennie Skerl

Clemson, South Carolina: Clemson University Press, Beat Studies Series, 2020 

A review by A. Robert Lee

Anyone with half an eye to 1960s US counterculture would be hard-pressed not to acknowledge the role played by  Ed Sanders. Who could more be thought  the Lower East Side and Village luminary, activist, peacenik and eco-warrior, and like Anne Waldman one of Beat’s great intergenerational fellow-travellers? Add in the poet of forty or so collections from his Poem from Jail (City Lights, 1963), written after arrest for protesting  Polaris Missiles and the Atomic Energy Commission, through to A Life of Olson: A Sequence of Glyphs on Points of His Life, Work and Times (2018), with its encomium to the Black Mountain luminary. Summon the fiction writer of the Tales of Beatnik  Glory series (1975-2004),  the  verse historian of his 5-volume  America (2000-2009) and biographies of Chekhov (1995) and Ginsberg (2000),  and the clear-eyed chronicler of The Family: The Story of Charles Manson’s Dune Buggy Attack Battalion (1971,  revised 1990, 2002).  Even then you haven’t anything like met his plenty.  

             Was he not the begetter of Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts, virtually the mimeograph  revolution in person, with the on-line Woodstock Journal (1995-2003) a later follow-on?  How not to look back to his time as founder-owner of the Peace Eye Bookstore , opened in 1964 at 383 East Tenth Street, and raided for “obscenity” almost as if under an iron law of respectability by the New York police?  Turn to your tapes, or CDs, and you have the Fugs, satiric folk-rock with Tuli Kupferberg, wild, fun song-stories,  Lenny Bruce as it were with music. In all of these directions he also remains the Greek scholar, the Egyptologist, the writer in residence several times over, and the National Endowment for the Arts and PEN Josephine Miles Literary awardee. To which can now be added, as In the Rebel Café bears ready witness, the wholly engaging interviewee.

            Certainly his typical measure was not lost on Helen Weaver, one of the necessary speakers at the conference “The Beat Generation: Legacy and Celebration” held in May 1994 at NYU. In The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties (2009)  she recalls “In ‘Beat Cabaret’ that night, Ed Sanders stole the show and my heart with his stirring tribute to all the left-wing undergrounds of the past, present, and future, ‘Hymn to the Rebel Café.’” It makes a perfect entry into the twenty or so interviews Jennie Skerl has edited for this  inaugural volume  in the Clemson University Press Beat Studies series. In line with her rightly applauded previous Beat scholarship Skerl offers a full, meticulous Introduction to the interviews she perceptively calls Sanders’s “career biography,” together with due life-chronology and bibliography.     

Once off and running the interviews themselves confirm the kind of countercultural vitality signified in Sanders, his commitment to creative anarchist freedom and politics, his belief from the outset in non-violent  protest.  As early as June 1965, at aged 25, in The Village Voice with John Wilcock, he is to be heard burnishing  anti-establishment credentials, the mantra of “Total Assault on the Culture.” In the last of the interviews, “Still Happening,” with Jennifer Seaman Cook for The Los Angeles Review of Books in July 2018, the same light clearly holds . If Ginsberg’s “best minds of my generation,” as he says, were for him the roll-call of social activists, writers, musicians and like, then the legacy has continued in none more so than himself. That degree of commitment, unmistakable, dissident, never less than honorable, runs through each of the interviews at hand.

            You have your pick of highlights. There is always the session on William Buckley’s  Firing Line in 1968  in which he expatiates on the Vietnam war as Buckley affects full supercilious mode and Kerouac jumps in like an erratic bar-room wit. With Barry Miles in 1999 he remembers Burroughs and scientology, the rise of Black Power, his credo of being “addicted” to poetry. With Sookie Stambler in 1972 he explains the reason for the flat reportorial style deployed  in The Family (“I wanted to demythologize the Manson thing”). Jennie Skerl’s own interview from 1983 and reprinted in the Journal of Beat Studies in 2018, take up a number of key threads to include  his notion of  “investigative poetry,”  the creative connection to Burroughs and Ginsberg, his glyph and calligraphy work, and his overall resolve  be it Vietnam or Reaganite conservatism, “to shake America.” A helpful retrospect on the mimeograph revolution, and the literary gallery published in Fuck You, is available in the interview with Tandy Sturgeon for Contemporary Literature  (1990).

             Kevin Ring in Beat Scene (1993) eulogizes Sanders as “one of America’s bravest and most outspoken writers” and has him giving the history of the Fugs, his teaching at Naropa, the role of Black Sparrow Press (and its innovative publisher John Martin) in getting Hymn to the Rebel Café  (1993) into print.  Sanders’s classical interests and training  get an airing in the interview with Steve Luttrell (1995) in which, teasingly, he is to be heard observing “My mother said a gentleman should know Greek.” But he then goes on to explain his affection for Aeschylus, Euripides and Homer and the relationship between social activism (“I guess I’m a European style or Swedish style of social democrat”) and poetry. With Lisa Jarnot at Naropa, and then the Cedar Bar in NYC in 1997, he speaks with huge respect of both Ginsberg (“His poems are like this epic of coming to terms with violence” ) and Olson (“the shamanic rev-up method of writing”).

            In Vienna with Markus Brandletter,  under the auspices of the Schule für Dichtung, he attributes to poetry “secret ways of making its power known.”   That has its link to his session with Alan Bisbort for Literary Kicks in 2012  in which, speaking of his  compositely titled  Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and the Counterculture in the  Lower East Side (2011), he recalls sending Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts not just to Ginsberg but Khruschev, Castro, Picasso, and Beckett. It was a typical  Sanders gesture, at once gamesome and  serious, and whose considerable flair comports with that of the other interviews collected in In the Rebel Café. Professor Skerl has shown a keen not to say timely hand, one to put us considerably in her debt.

(March 2021)