Riding the One-Eyed Ford

Riding the One-Eyed Ford by Diane Burns


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  • Chapbook
    Riding the One-Eyed Ford
    An Introduction by Nicole Wallace

    “Some people may be confused by some of the terms used in this book. Gaoshkibos is my family name and it translates into English to ‘Barber’ or ‘Cut Hair,’” writes Diane Burns in the Forward to Riding the One-Eyed Ford (Contact II, 1981). What follows are a series of possible origin stories of the “49” (you can look it up for yourself) and how it came to be named—Burns lands on: it “is a long story, and it’s usually not the same story twice.”

    Diane Burns is a Trickster. She is a storyteller. In the space that her writing, the poems of Riding the One-Eyed Ford, create—whether the words are in Anishinaabemowin or English—there is a refusal to give definitive answers, because there are none. Instead truth, or what might be understood as truth, takes a different shape, has another place of origin.

    When I think about the 16 poems that comprise Riding the One-Eyed Ford, what comes through is life lived—this truth, this way of knowing. The poems give breath to what can be understood as “time” or “place” and center Burns’ experience as a dislocated Anishinaabe/Chemehuevi urban NDN, shifting back and forth across what is presently known as the Lower East Side, Chicago, Santa Fe, and Lac Courte Oreilles.

    The four interspersed illustrations by Burns, including the cover image, featured in Riding the One-Eyed Ford depict Indigenous folx riding horses through what appears to be the Lower East Side; a punk NDN opening the door to a dilapidated “rez car,” parked next to an Indigenous guy in a top hat driving a Model-T; and an Indigenous femme sitting on a motorcycle amongst over-sized fern fronds and unfurled fiddleheads. In the images, as in the words, there is a refusal of colonial forms of narrative and of knowing, of static linear time or place.

    On the back of the long out-of-print chapbook, poet Maureen Owens eloquently reflects on Diane and her work: “because she crosses cultures / the way / most people cross a street in New York / against the light / into full traffic / with the grace that / makes your eyes water.” I think of and return to Owens’ words often, as they have become a part of my own relationship to, and understanding of, the life and work of Diane Burns.

    I also often think of how I first came to know the poems in Riding the One-Eyed Ford, which was by way of listening to a recording of Burns reading them at The Poetry Project in 1982, hosted by Bob Holman. Which then led me to Bob, who generously shared his copy of the chapbook with me—the first I had ever seen the entirety of this collection in print. And while seeing the work on the page was a revelation, something about that initial spoken transmission and reception—as in hearing the same work in her own voice—was what stayed.

    I think of the oral tradition and what is passed down from one generation to the next.

    Knowledge that is transmitted across “time,” “space”—from those who came before, to be passed on to those who will someday (again) become those who will pass this knowledge on—these cyclical, layered connections: past, present, and future. By way of tracing these steps—backwards, forward, again—to find what was “left behind,” or that which was left out of print for far too long, is where I have come to find the work and words of Diane Burns. I am so grateful for these poems, this chapbook, her voice, this truth—debwewin—this knowledge shared, passed on through her writing, her work, her life. And, now, through the digitization of this chapbook, her stories can continue to be passed on, brought forward, to resonate.

    At the close of the Forward to Riding the One-Eyed Ford, Diane Burns writes, “This book is a true story.” And it is.

    And it is not lost on me that the opening of her poem “Big Fun” is a “49”—“I don’t care if you’re married I still love you / I don’t care if you’re married / After the party’s over / I will take you home in my One-Eyed Ford / Way  yah hi yo, Way yah hi yo!” And that it is a “49” that is either borrowed, in conversation with, or a descendant of Jim Pepper’s “Newlywed Song” from Pepper’s Pow Wow (1971)—or all of the above. In Burns’ own words, “you can take your pick of which story to believe.”

    Nicole Wallace is the author of WAASAMOWIN (IMP, October 2019) and was a 2019 Poets House Emerging Poets Fellow. She is the Managing Director of The Poetry Project and a member of the Indigenous Kinship Collective. Recent poetry can be read in print in Survivance: Indigenous Poesis Vol. IV Zine and online at A Gathering of The Tribes, LitHub, and A Perfect Vacuum. Originally from Gakaabikaang, located in what is currently called Minnesota, she is a descendent of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe).

    Diane Burns
    “This Book is a True Story”: A Conversation About Diane Burns

    Poet Nicole Wallace spoke with Britta Ruona, Diane Burns’ daughter, and poet Bob Holman, about Diane Burns (1956 – 2006) on April 12, 2020. Diane Burns was born January 11, 1956 in Lawrence, Kansas. Her father was Chemehuevi and her mother was Anishinaabe (The Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe). She grew up in Riverside, California, and on the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation in Hayward, Wisconsin. After attending the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, she received a scholarship to Barnard College, but dropped out in her senior year. The conversation that follows traces her life and work as a poet in New York City, where she became a prominent figure of artistic and literary communities of the Lower East Side.

    Nicole: Britta, should we start with you?


    Bob: Definitely start with Britta. My basic knowledge of Diane is during her years in New York. There’s a lot of time before that. And it was actually during a certain period of time in New York that I knew her. The last couple of years we weren’t as close as we had been. Britta knows the stories of Diane’s childhood!

    Nicole: I’m wondering, Britta, if you’d want to talk a little bit about where Diane was born and where she grew up?

    Britta: She was born in Kansas; both of my grandparents were teachers at boarding schools, but then moved to the rez in Wisconsin, Lac Courte Oreilles, shortly after. She was there for a couple years and then she moved to California, because I believe my grandmother was teaching out there. So she moved to Riverside, California, with the Chemehuevi side of the family. After that, she moved back to the rez [Lac Courte Oreilles]. Then she went to college at Barnard College in New York. So that’s how she actually moved to New York.

    Nicole: She had some poems about her grandmother—I remember from the reading she gave at The Poetry Project [on10/27/1982] where she talks about her grandmother. Would that be her grandmother on the Chemehuevi side of her family?

    Britta: I think that is who she’s talking about, because her grandmother [on Diane’s mother’s side] passed away before she was born. My grandma’s mom passed away when my grandma was five. So she is talking about the Chemehuevi grandma.

    Nicole: Yeah, there’s a poem [“Fisher Girl”] that goes something like: “when I was a little girl, grandma, I didn’t know you didn’t drink Kool-Aid too when you were young,” or something like that. 

    Britta: Right, yeah.

    Nicole: So then she moved to New York to go to Barnard. I read that she was going to study law?

    Britta: Well, she went to Barnard for three years and then she left the last year. I think she just didn’t want to do what she was there for. I think she didn’t want to be a lawyer. She was so far in it, I think she just didn’t want to be on that path anymore. I don’t know if that had to do with her realizing more about the world and more about, you know, the status quo and the way things were, or if she just didn’t want to be a lawyer.

    Nicole: So she stopped going to Barnard and then ended up writing poetry? 

    Britta: Yeah. She said she kind of just fell into it. The American Indian Community House was looking for a poet and they were like, “Oh, it’s gonna pay like 50 bucks.” She was like, “Okay, I'll do it.” And she just wrote something, you know, to get the 50 bucks and then that was it.

    Readings & Writing

    Diane Burns found support for her work at the American Indian Community House; A Gathering of the Tribes, a gallery and magazine run by Steve Cannon; Contact II, a magazine and press run by Maurice Kenny and Josh Gosciak; the Nuyorican Poets Cafe; and The Poetry Project. Bob Holman was a coordinator at The Poetry Project in the 1980s and later a co-director of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

    Nicole: There’s that footage from the American Indian Community House Variety Show [June 10, 1996 Variety Show] of Diane reading a poem, maybe it’s “Big Fun”? She’s reading and then you run onto the stage.

    Britta: I was always in the midst of the shows and somewhere running around.

    Nicole: That’s a really sweet moment. I was wondering, when you were a kid, if you were around a lot at her readings and readings she would go to? 

    Britta: Definitely. We were always at Tribes, all the time, always during the summer time. I went to school right down the street, so I was always going there after school and on weekends. I was always there and at the Nuyorican. I remember the door guy at Nuyorican used to give me like $5 every time he saw me.

    Bob: I was wondering why those numbers never added up! That was Julio Delmau. He was a boxer as a kid. He lived right across the street from the Nuyorican. He was a wonderful guy. Pedro Pietri would say he had a perfect record in the Golden Gloves—nine fights, nine losses.  I am so glad to hear that, Britta. I’m glad the five bucks was going to a good cause.

    Britta: Yeah, Julio. Yeah, it was going to get me McDonald’s….When I was a baby, me and my mom went to Arizona. She had a bunch of readings. I don’t know if it was a little tour, or I don't know what it was. But I know that she took me as a baby to Arizona, New Mexico, to a bunch of pow wows and events out there.

    Nicole: How old were you? 

    Britta: I was probably like, one. I don’t remember. Well, she said I was running around with the other Native kids, so I was probably like, three years or something.

    Nicole: So it would have been the early ‘90s?

    Britta: Yeah, like ‘94. Around there.

    Nicole: I was going to ask—when I talked with Steve Cannon about your mom, he said that she was always reading and always writing and couldn’t be stopped.

    Britta: Yeah, she was always reading. Even when she would come with me downstairs to play with my friends in front of the building, she would just sit on the porch and have her book out and be there for hours with her drink and her book.

    Nicole: Do you remember if she was also writing a lot? One of the things that a lot of people ask about is—you know, there’s Riding the One-Eyed Ford, which now people are going to be able to read in a much wider capacity—but everyone’s always asking about other work. And if there are other things that were never published?

    Britta: Yeah, there were a lot of short stories that were never published. Not so many poems, but she also drew a lot. She was a really good artist. She would do nice sketches. She had one, I think that one is actually in the book, in Riding the One-Eyed Ford, of crossing Bowery on the horses. You know which one I'm talking about? So she did a lot of things like that, where it was almost like a city landscape with Natives just in the middle of it. She had a lot of similar ones like that, that she never really got out. And a lot of short stories and little things here and there.

    Bob: Do you have all of those manuscripts, Britta?

    Britta: I have some, I don’t have all of them because I never got them afterwards. But, I do have some. She was working on a book called Tequila Mockingbird.

    Bob: I happened to find this one page of Tequila Mockingbird. It’s in A Gathering of the Tribes magazine, 1993.

    Britta: Oh, yeah. That’s it.

    Bob: It’s a wonderful beginning of a novel or something, you know?

    Britta: Yeah. We had a really old computer, and I think I might have some more of it on little discs. I don't even know how I would get that out now.

    Nicole: Right before you got on to this call Britta, Bob was telling me about Tequila Mockingbird. He was like, “I have this one thing here that I don’t know if it was ever finished!” And then you brought it up.

    Bob: I don't know if it’s ever been published anywhere except in that issue of Tribes.

    Britta: Yeah, I don’t think it has. I think it’s just there. I don’t think it was complete. But, I know there were a couple of chapters. 

    Bob: You know, it was the birth of “multi culti” in those days. And she gave a perspective that nobody else had.

    Britta: Right, that nobody heard before.

    Bob: Everybody was just in awe of her. On one hand, she was a unique being and, on the other hand, she was part of the team. I didn’t really meet her much before the chapbook [Riding the One-Eyed Ford] came out with Maurice Kenny and Josh Gosciak. And it was great to see Josh, at that reading [Big Fun: Indigenous Art & Performance as Resistance at MCNY, 1/28/20]. I couldn’t believe it. Of course, Maurice died a couple of years ago, or three or four years ago. Do you know anything about how she migrated from the Upper West Side and the Ivy halls of Barnard down to the Lower East Side? Were there people that she was friendly with? 

    Britta: I don’t know. I just never heard of her even living by Barnard. I always just heard about her living in the Lower East Side since she got here in the ‘70s.

    Nicole: Bob, you mentioned that you only met Diane a little before the chapbook came out, which was in 1981. How did you get to know her?

    Bob: I had to have met her then, because I helped set up that reading at The Poetry Project. I'm trying to remember how that all happened. And I can’t. I remember that the reading was totally terrific. And everybody was in love with her, you know? 

    Trip to Nicaragua

    In 1988, Bob Holman, Diane Burns, and other poets were invited to Nicaragua by the Sandinista government to attend the Ruben Dario Poetry Festival. Group photo below by Kevin Gerien.

    Britta: What happened with the airplane, when you guys all went to Nicaragua?

    Bob: Yeah, that was a big trip. That was 1987 or ‘88, near the end of the Sandinista years in Nicaragua. A lot of people were going down there and working in the coffee fields, helping out with the revolution. You know, I’ve only seen it a couple of times in my life, a revolution that has poetry at its center. That was in Nicaragua and in Eritrea. But both of them: members of the government were poets. Of the nine directors of the Sandinista government, seven of them had published books, and one of them was Ernesto Cardenal. He was a minister of culture. He just died a few months ago. A brilliant revolutionary theologian who had a real feeling. He had a lot of connections to other poets there who knew all the poets of South and Central America. Cardinal and Ginsberg were friends and, as you probably know, Allen made that trip down there with Diane and me and Pedro and so many others, including Joy Harjo. 

    This was the first time I ever raised money for a cause, and the cause was to get Diane Burns and Pedro Pietri to Nicaragua. It was real straightforward. Here are two great poets who weren’t connected in any way to the money machine. So if they were going to get the money, people were going to have to cough it up, and they did and we got both of them down there. At which point, I don’t know if they’d been in love before, but they did fall in love then. Of course he was married at the time, so that made complications, but it didn’t stop them from getting married down there. I don't know how they did that, but they did it! 

    In Nicaragua, we gave a reading for an audience of 500 soldiers. Your mother’s poetry was all translated into Spanish. It would be great to find those translations. She was speaking as an Indigenous person from the USA and it really spoke to the Indigenous people in Nicaragua. A Miskito poet named Carlos Rigby became very tight with us and started the connection between the Natives of Nicaragua and with Diane, and other Indigenous poets of the U.S. It was amazing. It was an extraordinary time. Diane was really central to the trip along with Joy Harjo, who wasn’t there for the whole time. When I came back with everybody, except Diane and Pedro, the next thing I know I’m getting a call from the American Indian Movement saying, “What did you do with Diane Burns? You were the one who brought her down there. Where is she?!” All I could say was, “She married Pedro Pietri and they’re still down there!” They came back, but it was a while, a week or ten days.

    Britta: I heard she had a gun on the plane. 

    Bob: I have heard that too. I do know that the guy who was showing us around down there, who would become the ambassador of Nicaragua to China, had a pistol in the back of his pants when he took us around. I think that’s probably the gun that Diane ended up with, I don’t know. 

    Pedro left his shoes out one night after a party and when he woke up in the morning, he couldn’t find his shoes. He remembered where they were, so he walked over to this other building, walked in to get his shoes, and into a meeting between the Sandinista government and the Russian government. All of a sudden, here comes Pedro, wearing his black tuxedo t-shirt, his black hat, his hair coming out, and he’s going in there and they say, “What are you doing here?” And he said, “I just getting my shoes back.”

    Those were the kind of episodes that would happen back in those days.

    The Lower East Side

    As host and producer of the video series “Poetry Spots” for public television station WNYC-TV from 1987 – 1993, Bob Holman featured Diane Burns performing her poem, “Alphabet City Serenade,” as she walks through the Lower East Side in 1989. Click on the image below to watch the video.

    Bob: One of the things I like about Diane’s video for “Poetry Spots” is, you really get to see how different the Lower East Side was in those days. 

    Britta: Yeah. I try to explain, whenever I meet people who are going down, that it is so different. Where the condos are, there used to be a trailer park.

    Bob: It was a different world.

    Nicole: I was going to ask you about the “Poetry Spots” video, Bob. How did that come about? Did you shoot the video? Did you and Diane work on that together?

    Bob: This was a series with WNYC TV and we had a small budget. We had a cinematographer, so I wasn’t shooting. I was directing and producing. It featured a great diversity of poets, which was quite unusual in those days. Diane, to me, was central to this underground aesthetic. You know, she was here for the art. And in that art, she found a way to voice her identity, and there was an extremely receptive audience. I’m just so happy that she has a chance again now to be heard. It was an insular scene. In those days, at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, it was a big crowd if we had 50 people and it was almost always the same group of people who came every week.

    When the Nuyorican reopened in ‘89 or ‘90, Diane was there. She found a home at A Gathering of the Tribes, but there was no Gathering of the Tribes at that point. A Gathering of the Tribes sort of was concomitant with the reopening of the Nuyorican Cafe, which had been closed for the ‘80s; AIDS, crack, and gentrification. People were running for their lives, running scared, and the culture that had been built before then was shattered. Spots like The Poetry Project and the Nuyorican gave support to Diane.

    Britta: With A Gathering of the Tribes, wasn’t there a fire there?

    Bob: Yes. 

    Britta: That was before it was a gallery, it was just Steve’s house.

    Bob: I think it was in the early ‘90s, when he was married to Zoe [Anglesey], a poet and translator who did a lot of work in Nicaragua—she was on the U.S. Poets Invade Nicaragua Tour with us*—and published an incredible anthology of women poets of Central America right about that time (Elizabeth Murray, who was my wife for 27 years, did the cover for that book).

    Britta: I know that that my mom and dad helped build up the place after there was [that] big fire. My dad did construction.

    Bob: Yes, he did. I’m thinking now about the work that he did on the floor above Steve’s floor, which was very bare. He put up some beams in there. Everything really burned.

    That’s where The Stoop met, which was Steve’s and my workshop that we had when the Nuyorican took off. All of a sudden, when people would come to hear the slams, or hear poetry, they wanted to hear the poems that had made the Nuyorican the Nuyorican. Everybody had their party piece, their signature poem, which wasn’t the name of the game for young poets—you shouldn’t be reading the same poem. Every week, you had to write new stuff, like Diane was doing. So we started The Stoop and that’s where people tried out their new work. Yeah, we miss Steve. I really wish he were here, because it was that dailiness. 

    Nicole: Bob, you must have met Britta when she was small and, Britta, you must have met Bob when you were very young. Do you remember when you first met each other?

    Bob: I met Britta before she was born... 

    Britta: Yeah, I was probably too young to remember. 

    Bob: Her mother LOVED this baby in an extraordinary way. She brought you everywhere. She was working at Tribes in the office—lord knows that was a piece of anarchy in there—and there you were. It really gave a sense of vitality and a grounding spirit. So it was really something. There weren’t many kids around in those days. 

    Britta: Right. I definitely spilled a couple wine glasses here and there.

    I just remember being everywhere with her. Being at so many poetry readings and galleries and everywhere, at the Nuyorican. I was always the only kid running around because she literally brought me wherever she went. Whatever event she was going to, I was always there. Whenever she took me anywhere, she always had a book. When we went to the beach, she would have a book and she would literally be reading 24 hours a day. That’s all she would do. One of her friends, JM Polsky, used to call her a walking dictionary, because he would just throw out a random word and she would know what it meant. Or he would take the dictionary and just open it to a random page and no matter what, she would know what it was. 

    Bob: She was very smart, very smart.

    Britta: She was always at Tribes, so she was always reading newspapers to Steve Cannon and always working on the magazine and working on stuff at Tribes.

    Bob: She was one of the most loving and effervescent people I’ve ever met.

    Nicole: I just wanted to thank you both for taking time to talk tonight. I always like to hear more about Diane and her life and work. It feels like a gift to know both of you, and to have these conversations that I wish would have happened a long time ago. But I’m happy, so grateful, that they’re happening now. 

    * In addition to Diane Burns, Joy Harjo, Pedro Pietri, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Holman, and Zoe Anglesey, other attendees on the “U.S. Poets Invade Nicaragua” tour were Tom Savage, Alurista, Joe Richey, Judy Doyle and Sandy Taylor of Curbstone Press, Kevin Gerien, the photographer, and Jennifer Heath.


    Contact II
    Contact II, 1970s – 1990s: When Poetry Mattered More

    by Josh Gosciak

    As with many small presses, ours began in a print shop. My co-editor, Maurice Kenny, a second-gen Beat poet, charting a rogue course through Mexico, the Caribbean, and Chicago, eventually settled in Brooklyn Heights, attracted to New York City, as were others, by a waning literary sensibility. (He often boasted, sometimes snidely, of his proximity to Norman Mailer, who lived “up the street” in the Heights, or he’d defer to the infamous Hotel St. George—at that time on par with the Chelsea in Manhattan—located across from his apartment on Clark Street, with its windows offering views of passersby, fueling fantasies for one's bed or book.) Myself, I found solace in the far, far East Village—its only denizens, at the time, were former Young Lords turned poets and a few aging Beats, such as Ginsberg, who, like myself, relished the prairie quiet. (This was the nadir in urbanity, where real estate abandoned the city and ignited its buildings.) So it is apt that one of the few videotapes of poet Diane Burns—which can be viewed on this website—was filmed on a backdrop of Lower East Side rubble, the result of redlining and white flight. Amid this urban dystopia, poetry flourished. 

    Contact II found its rhythm in such morass, as it settled in, of all places, Lower Manhattan, at the very tip of Broadway, off the cusp of Wall Street. We enjoyed the anonymity and felt entirely rogue—currying favor with a printer whose owners, Italians from Staten Island, did speculative broadsheets for investment firms, such as Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank, but allowed us press runs in between. (And, out of necessity, our chapbooks were short runs of between 250 to 500 copies, usually saddle-stitched and bound by the editors after hours.) 

    I think Maurice Kenny, especially, appreciated the irony, as we sat in our various makeshift offices: a Chock full o’Nuts down the block, or George's Diner, so close in proximity to the World Trade Towers that it later incurred structural damage from the 9/11 attacks and had to be rebuilt. And, as with many presses, we worked out of a nearby postbox—Bowling Green—an incredibly historic address (and building), whose green at one time held a statue of King George III that was eventually toppled by newly-minted colonial revolutionists. Of course, post-Sandy and post-9/11, that rhythm and flavor of Lower Manhattan during the 1980s is, alas, no more. 

    But the real work took place either in Brooklyn Heights or the East Village. Usually that involved a home-cooked meal, some wine, and an all-night reading of poetry, reviews, ideas for articles or mini-anthologies (our eventual notoriety and trademark) in upcoming issues. Maurice felt hamstrung and eventually began his own press, Strawberry Press, and line of poets—all Native writers from around the country, including poets from our press, such as Elizabeth Woody, and of course, Burns, as well as his good buddies Wendy Rose and Joy Harjo; fellow publisher Joseph Bruchac; and a range of other poets from the established—Peter Blue Cloud, Duane Niatum, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Linda Noel—to the up-and-coming—Alex Jacobs, Rokwaho (Daniel Thompson). It was about this time that Maurice was having an epiphany—rediscovering his Native roots (Wendy Rose, too, explored these intersectional flashes in her Half-Breed Chronicles of 1985 and our press’ What Happened When the Hopi Hit New York, her grand splash into Gotham City, of 1982). He eventually migrated “home” to the North Country, not far from where he spent his childhood in Watertown, New York—off the Canadian border—and close to Akwesasne Mohawk territory.

    But before that final migration home and our eventual demise, there was still much work to be done. Other sparks were igniting from California and igniting yet other sparks in the Midwest, Southwest, and the Deep South. Whereas the Beats colonized major American urban centers—whether San Francisco on the West Coast, or New York on the East, and Chicago in between—we felt there was still a vast void that remained—for the most part—unexplored. This, then, began our remapping of a poetic zeitgeist taking place beyond the legends of Beat personalities and formalist urbane versifiers. The zeitgeist included first multiculturalism—a fairly new term then, hardly acknowledged by presses, academe, or popular media—and then a rough-edged regionalism, not to be confused with the more formal regionalism of, say, The Georgia Review, which at the time consolidated “New Southern” writers. 

    The new magazines we discovered in nonurban parts of the country, particularly Margins, tremendously influenced the shape and aesthetics of the type of poetics and world view we, as editors, desired. (And, in one moment of collaboration, as Maurice and I did one of our many cross-country driving marathons, we even considered merging Margins with our magazine.) As we moved further West, in Oakland, we encountered the multicultural manifestos of Ishmael Reed and his entourage, which included Shawn Wong, Victor Hernández Cruz, Joe Johnson, and Steve Cannon, who until he passed in 2019, was the legendary blind bard of the Lower East Side, broadcasting a multicultural lingo through his loosely-knit “A Gathering of the Tribes,” a magazine and gallery attracting a group of tribalistic writers that included Diane Burns, highlighted here, and others. 

    Interestingly, Cannon's work in founding A Gathering of the Tribes in 1991 on the Lower East Side dovetailed with the earlier 1980s aesthetic that was percolating from below and, artistically, horizontally, post-Beat and post-postmodern, in the emerging art scene of the East Village. The ABC No Rio gallery—their founding inspired by “The Real Estate Show,” which opened in late 1979 at 123 Delancey Street (now part of the mega-development and tourist mosh pit, Essex Crossing) in an abandoned building squatted by the artists’ group Collaborative Projects, attracting, briefly, such curiosity-seekers as Joseph Beuys, the German sculptor and performance artist, as well as the NYPD (who eventually shut it down)—became a 1990s anti-gentrification game changer. One ABC No Rio exhibition, “The Suburban Show,” in particular created such a controversy that it was vandalized, shut down, and excoriated as a despicable example of urban colonization. In other words, gentrification. Which all seems quaint today. But revenge is sweet. ABC No Rio’s longtime 156 Rivington Street home is now a hollowed-out vacant lot, a victim of the very forces it rebelled against.

    During its heyday, the gallery—and the controversy over the role of artist as gentrifier—became a live wire for the aesthetics of our magazine's multiculturalism. Poets from the ABC No Rio orbit who appeared in the pages of Contact II  include the first generation of Nuyorican poets—Jorge Brandon, Bimbo Rivas, Pedro Pietri, and Sandra María Esteves, as well as writers from Newark and Harlem—Amiri Baraka and Safiya Henderson-Holmes, respectively; East Village chronicler Allen DeLoach, who came in all the way from Buffalo, New York; and local legendaries, such as Elliott Murphy, Rose Lesniak, Bart Plantenga, Richard Armijo, Will Bennett, Max Blagg, and, of course, Burns, whose riveting Lower East Side storefront readings firmly established her as the barbed Native wordslayer. At the height of the multicultural fervor and synthesis, which threaded sensibilities and 
    aesthetics into a singular vision of America, our magazine devoted space to writing by Asian Americans and women, with special features on Judy Grahn and Audre Lorde. (Some issues included inserted chapbooks, such as one devoted to the work of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge.) 

    The cost of the magazine was kept down by doing much of the work ourselves—from the typesetting to binding, to mailing and distribution. A few times we piled magazines into the backseat of a “drive away” (a car courier) and hit as many major cities as we could. This, of course, was a popular conveyance for magazines as the mails were not considered reliable, due to the content, and the survival of such a network of small publishers and writers was dependent on an open-door policy. A distribution network seemed the likely route toward a consolidation of an aesthetic.

    And like a primitive version of the sleek-footed Amazon, we set up a multicultural catalog that included not just our publications, and those Native writers of Strawberry Press, but other presses and magazines as well—from the American Indian Community House, Bruchac's The Greenfield Review PressAkwesasne NotesBefore Columbus FoundationWhite Pine Press, and zines from diverse and obscure places in the United States. So, in non-digital ways, unique to its time, this movement was feasible in large part due to the generosity, good will, and openness of all those involved on the ground.


    It has been some 40 years since we brought out Diane Burns’ Riding the One-Eyed Ford in 1981. And it is her only book to date. Poetry seemed to matter back then—or matter differently, as if your entire life and ecosystem depended on it for sustenance. It seemed, in the 1980s and 1990s, when the optimism of political change stagnated, that poetry offered a counterpoint in lieu of a revolution. By simply writing, one imagined, shades of identity—whether Midwest, Southwest, the South, Northeast—and gender inequalities would be resolved with the flourish of a BiC pen. (This was still the era of pen on paper.)  The idea that poetry can fill an identity and political void seemed very, very tenable. 

    In the intervening years, since we folded in the early 1990s, I had regrets that a mistake had been made; that is, we—as publishers—had caved in, folded, pulled the plug, ran away. And, in my fantasies, with the ubiquity and virtues of the oncoming internet (this being the early 1990s), I backpedaled and thought of reviving an online salon, the user-friendly parlance, complete with distribution through, of course (what else?), Amazon. Everyone, I pouted, made the transition on, except our endeavor. At that time, in the early aughts, still well clear of the social media crisis, Amazon was considered a savior of small businesses. (Now we all know better, about Amazon, Zuckerberg, and much of our excitement over interconnectedness.) But that would be a much later revelation. 

    Things end for a reason. Either the substrata that had nourished it dissolves or the chinks along the sandstone have been indelibly carved enough to be puzzled out for future interpretations. Today, poets still vagabond it; publishers still struggle and bring new works to light, and there are always and will be new voices—though with different concerns—on the horizon. Yet there is a hollowed sadness that persists. Diane Burns has not been reading her work for some 30 years. We are in a new era, thanks to social media and economic prosperity. But maybe not so for the zines of that time period and the poets they nourished.

    A poetry press sometimes reflects its zeitgeist, with a clear start and end point. And it sometimes knows when it is time to fold, and slip contentedly into oblivion. Until it finds its measure, and is, happily, rediscovered, as is the case here.

    For all the activist-poets who crossed my life—Maurice Kenny, Audre Lorde, Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Diane Burns, Michael Lynch, and so many others, this is written for them, in appreciation.


    Josh Gosciak is a co-editor, along with Colab artist and documentarian Alan Moore, of the anthology A Day in the Life: Tales from the Lower East (Semiotexte Press, 1991), and a contributor to ABC No Rio Dinero: The Story of a Lower East Side Art Gallery (ABC No Rio with Collaborative Projects, 1985) and Modernism on File: Writers, Artists, and the FBI, 1920–1950 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). He also is the author of a critical study of the Jamaican poet Claude McKay (Shadow Country, Claude McKay and the Romance of the Victorians, Rutgers University Press, 2006). 


    Photo credits, from the top: Fulton St., Brooklyn Heights, January 21, 1978, photo by Dinanda H. NooneyLower East Side This Land is Ours, 5th Street and Avenue C, 1988, photo by Marlis Momber; Chock Full o’Nuts, photo by Michael Evans/New York Times; Steve Cannon, photo by Adam Golfer; Miguel Piñero and Sandra María Esteves, 1977, photo by Bolivar Arellano; Bimbo Rivos, photo by Máximo Colón; artists of the exhibition Women of Sweetgrass, Cedar and Sage with friends and community members outside the American Indian Community House Gallery, 1985, photo by Jesse Cooday. 


    Two Video Tributes to Diane Burns 


    Poetry Spots: Diane Burns reads “Alphabet City Serenade” 

    Diane Burns recites her poem “Alphabet City Serenade” on the Lower East Side in this 1989 short video by poet Bob Holman as part of the Poetry Spots series he produced for WNYC-TV. 



    I’ll Remember You as You Were, not as What You’ll Become 

    Created by artist Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians), the 2016 video elegy I'll Remember You as You Were, not as What You'll Become includes footage of Diane Burns reading from the poems “Big Fun” and “Sure You Can Ask Me a Personal Question” at the American Indian Community House in 1996.



    Creator and producer of the award-winning PBS television series “The United States of Poetry,” Bob Holman has more recently focused his video work on endangered language advocacy. He is also the founder of Bowery Poetry and the author of over a dozen collections of poetry.

    Sky Hopinka’s work was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, and he has received recent fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, the Sundance Institute, and the Guggenheim Foundation.