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The Mimeo Revolution

Stretching from the early 1960s through the early 1980s, many dozens of small presses sprang up across North America (and beyond) during what has now come to be known as the Mimeo Revolution. This typographical upheaval gathered energy around members of the Beat movement, as well as former faculty and alumni of the wildly influential North Carolina arts college, Black Mountain, but it soon attracted a much broader spectrum of writers, artists, and amateur printers, including those of the Black Arts Movement, the New York School, and other movements. “Direct access to mimeograph machines, letterpress, and inexpensive offset made these publishing ventures possible, putting the means of production in the hands of the poet,” wrote Steve Clay and Rodney Phillips, in their indispensable bibliographical history A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980. This “underground economy of poets,” as Jerome Rothenberg put it in the preface to A Secret Location, designed, printed, and distributed a massive and vastly diverse body of countercultural, often ephemeral literature that circulated internationally.

DIY book production had already begun to bubble up during the years after World War II. Donald Allen’s seminal 1960 anthology The New American Poetry had its raison d'etre in promoting this expanding, subterranean network of marginal writers, whose work “has shown one common characteristic,” he argues in the book’s introduction: “a total rejection of all those qualities typical of academic verse.” Further, Allen emphasized, “these poets have already created their own tradition, their own press, and their public.” However, the anthology’s lopsided selection of poets reinforced the biases of its age: of 44 contributors, LeRoi Jones is the only black person; Helen Adam, Madeline Gleason, Barbara Guest, and Denise Levertov are the only women. Allen’s anthology also pointed to the West and East Coasts (and Black Mountain College) as primary sites of poetic activity. But the Mimeo Revolution would prove to be infinitely more diverse and expansive. To borrow a metaphor from Whitman, what The New American Poetry made simmer, the Mimeo Revolution brought to a boil.

The Mimeo Revolution demonstrated the tectonic shifts in the broader social and political landscape that impressed themselves upon the aesthetic topography of postwar American avant-garde poetics. It reflected the evolution of the Black Arts movement, for instance, from LeRoi Jones who co-founded with Hettie Jones the (pre–Black Arts) Lower East Side–based Totem Press, to the aesthetic refinement and anti-conciliatory potency of the chapbooks published by Dudley Randall, publisher of Detroit-based Broadside Press, which released titles by Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Etheridge Knight, and other greats. A number of presses were also founded by women, including Diane di Prima’s Poets Press, Margaret Randall’s El Corno Emplumado, and Lyn Hejinian’s Berkeley-based Tuumba Press; and one press—the eclectic and awesomely prolific Burning Deck, based in Providence, RI—was founded by a married couple, Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop. Meanwhile, the chapbooks of Tuumba and Burning Deck also registered the growth of the Language movement, which rejected the lyrically driven “organic” forms of the New American poets in favor of what Hank Lazer has called “an oppositional literary practice” that resists “the traditional view of poetry as a staging ground for the creation and expression of an ‘authentic’ voice and personality.”


The Mimeo Revolution also revealed itself as a truly national—and transnational—phenomenon. Founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti almost 70 years ago, San Francisco–based City Lights Books has become almost synonymous with the Beat Generation; but alongside such household names as Allen Ginsberg, Diane di Prima, and Jack Kerouac, the press published a long list of international authors, frequently from countries held in contempt of U.S. diplomacy, such as Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Nicanor Parra. While domestic presses like Burning Deck and the Great Bear Pamphlets issued by Something Else Press reached out to writers overseas, others were located abroad like El Corno Emplumado, publishing bilingual Spanish-English editions of American poets like Jerome Rothenberg, as well as work by writers from Latin America and Europe.

In addition to its transnational reach, the Mimeo Revolution countered the East Coast/West Coast cultural hegemony of the American literary landscape with presses in the Midwest like Membrane (based in Milwaukee, WI), Toothpaste (based in Iowa City, IA), and Tansy (based in Lawrence, KS)—each of which upended hierarchical designations by juxtaposing the work of local and/or lesser-known authors (such as Theodore Enslin, John Moritz, and Suzanne Zavrian) with bona-fide members of the New American scene, like Robert Creeley and Edward Dorn.

Authors, printers, and publishers of these books formed lateral, collaborative networks of exchange, founded on personal affinities more than professional associations, and artistic kinship rather than critical classification. Their books represent collaborative projects, and they radiate the care and close attention that went into their production. The art, font, paper, binding, texture, and so forth; these elements make the objects unique and memorable. The signature two-tone, angular designs of the covers of the City Lights “Pocket Poets Series,” for instance, are unmistakable, as are the books’ uniform shape and dainty size; one can likewise recognize Tuumba publications by their unique dimensions, as well as the waxy finish of their covers.

Overall, the chapbook of the Mimeo Revolution was a strategically transient, but homemade thing, fittingly opposed, in form and content, to Cold War ideology and anxieties, wherein all space became militarized, all time became wartime, and all “problems of the spirit” were subordinated to a single, overwhelming question, as William Faulkner put it to the Nobel committee: “When will I be blown up?” In the midst of this burgeoning technocratic economy, ephemerality and aesthetic austerity became virtues. No surprise, then, that the psychogeography to which these postwar writers applied Ezra Pound’s high modernist dictum “make it new” involved self-consciously situating their work, including its mechanical reproduction, outside, if not against, mainstream concerns. In the chapbook, these poets discovered an empowering form of marginality that opened fresh networks of correspondence, collaboration, and community, and was evidently well-suited to reimagining the shape and trajectory of nation and city in the long shadow of nuclear holocaust.

The breadth, depth, and richness of the Poets House chapbook collection—the largest open-stack collection of its kind in the U.S.—is demonstrated by its significant holdings of chapbooks from the Mimeo Revolution. By celebrating the chapbook's autonomous network of kinship and influence, this online exhibit aims to challenge commonplace assumptions about cultural production and transmission and literary inheritance over the latter half of the 20th century. Explore some of these rare chapbooks here.

—Kyle Waugh

In 2014, Poets House presented the exhibition Chapbooks of the Mimeo Revolution: From New American Poetry to the New Sentence, featuring chapbooks drawn from the Poets House collection. The exhibition was curated by Kyle Waugh and Meira Levinson.

Kyle Waugh lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the Pratt Institute. He has edited numerous books, including the collected poems of Edward Dorn and Kenneth Irby. His writing has appeared in Jacket2Hot Gun!Washington Square, and elsewhere.

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