Dystopia and the Downtown AestheticTim W. Brown
Up Is Up, But So Is Down is an oversized omnibus volume that collects the work of poets and writers living in Manhattan below Fourteenth Street from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s. The book posits that these writers, who congregated in the bars, cafés, art galleries and shooting galleries of the East Village, Soho and Lower East Side, comprised an identifiable school of writing guided by a "Downtown" aesthetic. Says writer/critic Richard Kostelanetz, author of Soho: The Rise and Fall of an Artist's Colony, about the era, "Downtown was culturally different from Uptown. People living outside, or far away, didn't understand that or how." Editor Brandon Stosuy understands: he identifies a definite trajectory of Downtown writing that started in the seventies, peaked in the eighties, and entered its twilight phase in the nineties.
To understand how the writing collected in Up Is Up evolved, it is necessary to take account of the social conditions at the time. New York City had recently flirted with bankruptcy and was declared ungovernable. AIDS began to take its grim toll on gay men, many of whom were involved in the arts. A conservative tide led by President Ronald Reagan had a perceived chilling effect on freedom of expression. The movement Stosuy so aptly documents reacted against these social forces and fostered an aesthetic based on verbal aggression and sexual license. This aesthetic, coupled with a critical mass of artists, writers and musicians, resulted in a form of writing that, if not exactly original, certainly insisted on being heard. (One only has to recall that the Beats had already seen and done it all, sometimes in the very same streets, thirty or forty years before when American culture truly was in lockdown mode.)
The seventies provided the bridge between the New York School poets exemplified by Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett and the Downtown writers of the eighties, as Dennis Cooper states in the book's afterword: "the more I found out about them and their scene of mimeo poetry magazines and St. Mark's Church, and all that, the more New York became an ideal for me." Writers such as Kostelanetz, Beatnik poet Edward Sanders and author, playwright and librettist Constance DeJong, together with musician/writer hybrids like William S. Burroughs protégé and punk priestess Patti Smith, and Voidoids frontman and lyricist Richard Hell, set the tone for writers who hit their stride a decade later. Hell's signature song, "Blank Generation," captured the emerging mindset, consisting of one part nihilism and one part absurdist theatre: "I belong to the blank generation and / I can take it or leave it each time / I belong to the — generation / but I can take it or leave it each time."
Downtown writing in the eighties, comprising the heart of the book, formed part of a general renaissance of anti-establishment literature that occurred nationwide and wasn't restricted to a square mile or two of Lower Manhattan. An extremely lively zine scene centered around the review zine Factsheet 5 in San Francisco. A solid poetry community grew up in the wake of d.a. levy running in an axis through Cleveland, Detroit and Buffalo. Chicagoans invented slam poetry and embraced the form several years before New Yorkers did. Finally, the grandfather of all underground poets, Charles Bukowski, lived not in a Lower East Side tenement but in a residential hotel in Los Angeles. There existed then as well as in every era a parochial attitude that New York, in this instance Downtown New York, was the unrivaled center of the literary universe. A penchant for self-promotion in the mass media's backyard as much as literary talent accounts for the notoriety of the work reprinted in Up Is Up.
That said, the Downtown scene unquestionably produced quality work. The eighties section of Up Is Up contains poetry that varies pleasingly in style and subject matter, from the high-energy, performance-driven "Cardiac" by Max Blagg, to the prose poem victimology study "Five Stories" by Mike Topp, to the paranoid, dystopian take on eighties culture "Fear on 11th Street and Avenue A, New York City" by Denise Duhamel: "I fear the children I know will become missing children, / that I will lose everyone I need to some hideous cancer. / I fear automobiles, all kinds of relationships. /... / I have no privacy, / no protection, yet I am anonymous."
Many of the prose selections from the eighties comprise the juvenilia of writers who later achieved larger reputations after serving their apprenticeships Downtown, including Patrick McGrath, Tama Janowitz, Kathy Acker, the aforementioned Cooper, and the writers-cum-performance artists Eric Bogosian and Karen Finley. Notable stories contained in the book include Cookie Mueller's "Go-Going – New York & New Jersey," which depicts the stripping underworld and is pitch-perfect in capturing the dialect (and dialectics) of New Yawker sleazebags, and Lynne Tillman's "Haunted Houses," which explores the interesting admixture of high thoughts and low passions addressed by Downtown writers.
An unfortunate aesthetic choice by Downtown writers constantly cropping up in Up Is Up is a variation on name-dropping, what I call "place-dropping." There are a number of references to specific streets or other Downtown landmarks designed to elicit an image or emotion in the reader. However, to someone living outside New York City, "East Fourth Street" or "Avenue B" or even "Houston Street," the area's main thoroughfare, mean very little. Read twenty years later, these references come off as lazy shorthand substituting for detailed description, although, to be fair, the immediate audience reading these pieces in the zines published around the neighborhood recognized right away what was being evoked. The truly good writing in Up Is Up dispenses with place-dropping and achieves a more universal effect.
Stosuy notes that Downtown writing existed side-by-side during the eighties with an East Village art scene that, arguably, was the last unified school of American fine art. Living in close quarters, writers and artists influenced each other, leading in some instances to artists believing they, too, could write, which resulted in art work incorporating text that usually was ungrammatical, arrhythmic and misspelled. Artist David Wojnarowicz, whom Stosuy claims is underrated as a writer, I would say is overrated, judging by his piece in Up Is Up, "Self-Portrait in Twenty-Three Rounds," which strings together a number of disconnected, if arresting, images. The sole exception to this trend was Barbara Kruger, whose aphoristic statements set in highly magnified Helvetica Italic typeface, for example, "You are the perfect crime" on the cover of the Fall 1985 issue of Between C and D, were often insightful and witty.
The scene's energy had begun to dissipate by the early nineties. As the East Village and Lower East Side gentrified, many participants moved to cheaper neighborhoods. Some, like Tillman and Brad Gooch, earned advanced degrees and entered academia. A few, like Wojnarowicz and Mueller, died of AIDS. At least one, Bob Holman, proprietor of the Bowery Poetry Club, became an entrepreneur. Nevertheless, a handful of writers and poets known as the Unbearables continued to carry the Downtown writing flag well into the nineties. Up Is Up contains the work of several, including Ron Kolm, Sharon Mesmer, Carl Watson, Deborah Pintonelli and Joe Maynard. The Unbearables are the subject of Neo Phobe, a recent novel coauthored by Kolm and Jim Feast. An oddball, if entertaining, book written in the detective story mold, its cast of characters, based on the real-life Unbearables, attempts to solve a mystery involving corporate malfeasance and Christian fundamentalism. Should they unravel the mystery, the Neo Phobes plan collectively to write a book based on their crime-fighting experiences. Some of the funniest passages describe the efforts by these screw-ups to land the ever-elusive book deal.
Neo Phobe is profitably read together with Up Is Up to understand how the Downtown writing scene eventually wound down. One is struck in Neo Phobe by the difference in tone and subject matter between writing from the eighties and nineties. The writers in Up Is Up revel in their poverty and decadence; the characters in Neo Phobe gripe about their jobs as office temps. The former book's writers describe a world aswirl with heroin and cocaine; the latter book's characters consume lots of beer, a milder intoxicant. The changing times, particularly the realization that the world didn't end during the Reagan years, along with the city's rapid gentrification, produced writers who took fewer chances and shocked less than formerly but were better grounded. Faced with a more permissive political atmosphere and the necessity of working long hours to afford even minimal accommodations in an era of escalating rents, they romanticized bohemian values less while remaining healthily skeptical of mainstream American values.
In addition to poems and stories, Up Is Up contains innumerable photographs and other ephemera, including zine covers and reading flyers, adding a nice visual counterpart to the words. Appendices provide a comprehensive list of the zines published during the years covered in the volume and short biographies that detail the authors' lives then and now. A glaring omission is an index, which is sorely needed by anyone who plans to use the book's contents as part of literary research (or, in my case, to write a review).
Tim W. Brown is the author of four novels, Deconstruction Acres (1997), Left of the Loop (2001), Walking Man (2008) and the recently completed American Renaissance. His poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in over 200 publications, including The Bloomsbury Review, Chelsea, and Pleiades. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
Portions of this essay originally appeared in Colorado Review.