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“Poetry You Can Actually Read”

An Interview with Bruce Isaacson of Zeitgeist Press


The Last Five Miles to Grace, by David Lerner
Zeitgeist Press

Zeitgeist Press is an independent small press that rose out of the San Francisco Bay area spoken word scene of the late 1980s, most particularly rooted in the legendary Cafe Babar readings of that era. Every Thursday night poets gathered in the tiny back room at Cafe Babar, perched on crowded benches to hear each other’s latest work, and communally birthed what felt like a revolution in poetry. The place was a pressure cooker, the audience often raucous, pounding out their approval or their cries for attention in fists banged on the corrugated aluminum wall—but a good poem could work its magic there, too, bringing every ear to the poet’s voice, the room spellbound, breath caught, hearts strung together in rapt silence. It was outsider poetry, poetry spun from the lives of young poets outside the academy, beyond the pale of the mainstream, poetry in a line of descent from the Beats and the San Francisco Renaissance.

The Cafe Babar is no longer, the poets who honed their art there are scattered across the world, but Zeitgeist Press still lives 20 years later, reincarnated on the Web, and it’s busy publishing selections from the Babarian archives and new work from the Babarian poets and others. What follows is an email interview with founding publisher Bruce Isaacson, taking stock of the press’ place in the world 20 years on. For context, we suggest you visit the Zeitgeist Press Web site and read the history of the press under “About Us.”

Poetry Guide Margy Snyder: In the history on your Web site, you describe Zeitgeist Press as originally “a collective, more than a traditionally structured press”—and it became dormant for a while after the death of your co-founder, David Lerner. Tell us where the inspiration to reawaken the sleeping press came from, what you did to get it going again, and how it works now.

Bruce Isaacson: Well, David Lerner and I were friends, and he’s gone. David and Julia Vinograd and I were in the first round of Zeitgeist books, 1987. But Zeitgeist had books today that needed to be in the world. Julia Vinograd’s work continues to appear on Zeitgeist, and my new book, Ghosts Among the Neon... well, it had been 15 years since the last one. And Lerner’s The Last Five Miles to Grace needed to be published. Not only had his three Zeitgeist books sold out, but used copies were selling for $70 and up on Amazon. There are still hundreds of pages of unpublished Lerner poems. So the new book has both a Selected Works and 50 pages of new poems.

And since his death, Lerner’s poetry seems more relevant and important than when it was written. It’s a book of faith and tragedy and brilliant longing, set at the cragged edges of the American dream. I don’t think you’ll see anything similar anywhere else, and that’s a healthy mission for a press. There are other unique books we’ve wanted to do, and I hope we’ll go on doing unique things.

MS: The history describes Zeitgeist’s zeitgeist, its reason for being in the context of the post-Beat tradition of street poetry outside academia:

“Poetry you can actually read.” ...a burning for poetry that mattered in society... a poetics that was direct, and not just directed at poets... something that would make a difference generally in the way people felt... something more proletarian, more relevant to street life, as lived by all these intense poet-eyes wandering the Mission District of San Francisco... something ordinary people, or artists working in other art forms, could pick up and read, that would resonate with them without any insider’s mystery as to what had been said. Something that would affect the world, help it evolve toward a more sentient and true inner life. Something that would at least stand in opposition to the marketing-driven, advertising-designed aesthetic that dominates the culture at-large.

How has your view of the Press’s mission changed in 20 years? How do you think its context, the larger poetry world, has changed? How has the Press affected the world?

BI: In general, America’s tougher than it used to be, for artists and average people too. The thirst for real democracy and tangible idealism, which was so present in the 1970s, has been reduced to an astonishingly low level. Frederick Douglass said that if you find out what people will submit to, you have found the exact amount of injustice which will be imposed.

The poetry world has changed too. The emphasis on a poetry of presence, slams, readings—even the good academic poets want to be funny and appealing. Maybe the press and the live readings of the 1980s contributed to that.

Unfortunately, publishing poetry is harder now than it’s ever been. The distribution networks that were around in the 1980s have mostly disappeared. Public funding and grants are tougher than ever.

The interview continues next page...

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