I just received (on Tuesday afternoon, January 24, 2012) a notice regarding a celebration at AWP this year of the Golden Anniversary of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center, which I founded in 1962 -- nobody invited me to participate in the program. On three occasions in the past the AWP has turned down programs on me and my work, one of those was proposed by the then-director of the Poetry Center.
Not only did I found the Poetry Center, but in 1968 I founded what is now the Creative Writing Department of the State University of New York College at Oswego. That program was one of the original members of the Associated Writing Programs founded by Verlin Cassill. It is still one of the largest and best-known undergraduate writing programs in the United States, and it is still a member of AWP.
Interestingly enough, in this Golden Anniversary Year of the Cleveland Poetry Center, the fourth edition of one of the most widely-used poetry textbooks in the country, The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Revised and Expanded, Including Odd and Invented Forms was published this month in rhe forty-fourth year of its existence. The AWP apparently has been too preoccupied with other matters to take any notice of me and my work in the field of writing arts. This is the ad that Star Cloud Press ran in the AWP Program in 2009 despite the fact that my panel had been turned down by the program committee:
I thought I would take this opportunity to feature my essay on "The Founding of the Cleveland Poetry Center" which has been on Poetics and Ruminations for a while now.
My first full-time job teaching English began in the fall quarter of 1960 at Fenn College of Cleveland, Ohio. Nearly as soon as I arrived on campus I discovered that there was no money available for guest speakers. I soon asked Dr. Randolph Randall, chair of the English Department — the man who had hired me from the Iowa Workshop where I had been a graduate student — if it would be all right to bring aboard some of my writing friends as guests of my composition classes, gratis. He acceded.
Two poets took early advantage of this opportunity during the academic year 1960-61. One was Loring Williams, uncle of Cleveland’s most famous literary son, Hart Crane, by marriage to Alice Crane Williams, Hart's aunt. Loring was editor of the Cleveland poetry magazine American Weave and publisher of American Weave Press. He was also one of the three editors of the Book Club for Poetry, a function of Golden Quill Press, Francestown, New Hampshire; he had helped choose my First Poems for the Club in the spring of 1960, while I was still a grad student at Iowa and before I even knew I was coming to Cleveland. In 1962 he would publish my chapbook The Sketches as an American Weave Award Chapbook. He and his friend, the poet James L. Weil, editor and publisher of the Elizabeth Press of New Rochelle, New York, were the first guests of my class, which was thrown open to any members of the college community and the public who cared to sit in on these special sessions which were the precursors of the Fenn College Poetry Center of Cleveland in its original incarnation. A photograph of that class, with the three of us standing before it — Loring on my right and Jim on my left — appears on the “Virtual Web Page of Fenn College.”1
The downstate Ohio lawyer / poet Ralph L. Kinsey, another friend of Loring’s whom he had published, was my guest also, as was the California poet William Everson, known at the time as Brother Antoninus — he was in town to read at John Carroll University, and, in effect, I hijacked him for my class.
While I was attending Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference as a Poetry Fellow in August 1961, I discovered that William Golding, British author of the novel Lord of the Flies, a great success of the period, would be in the U. S. the following year and traveling across the country. Since he was to pass through Cleveland, I signed him for a reading by writing him early and using our entire first-year budget of $100.00 as his honorarium: He would be the Center’s first official guest during the spring of ‘62.
The man who gave the Center its original budget was the Provost of the College, Dr. William A. “Pat” Patterson who, at the beginning of my second year as an Instructor at Fenn, asked me to address the Freshman Convocation in the fall, a great honor for an academic parvenu. A bit later on I was interviewed by David Ossman at the New York City facilities of WBAI-FM Paciifica Foundation on September 26th, 1961. This interview was broadcast the following October 6th at 9:30 p.m. and a transcript of it appears on this blog.2 Also in that October of my second year a fellow Iowa Workshopper, the poet W. D. Snodgrass, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Heart’s Needle, came to campus to give a public reading — it was the first time that Fenn had actually paid a poet to visit.
I’m not sure exactly when, but Loring introduced me to the elderly Cleveland poet Collister Hutchison. He and I went to her home for a visit where she signed a copy of her only book, Toward Daybreak, published in 1950 with illustrations by Marc Chagall, and presented me with it. On Wednesday, February 21st, 1962, Miss Hutchison gave her only Fenn College poetry reading (and, to the best of my knowledge, her only local reading ever) at 2:30 in the afternoon. Twenty-three years later, in February of 1985, the local poet Russell Atkins wrote me, “I was invited to the dedication of the Cleveland State University Poetry Room [where] I talked to Donald Justice…. I had no sooner mentioned to Justice that I remembered him from the Western Review and your days of the forum when the dedication began, and, surprisingly, the ceremony was a tape of your introduction of Collister Hutchison at one of the Fenn Forums [it must have been at her reading]. Further, the room (the idea was advanced by a member of the Poets League here) was named after Hutchison!!” I eventually donated Collister’s inscribed book to my archive, “The Lewis Turco Collection,” of the Cleveland State University Special Collections, where Atkins’ letter also is located.3
The Fenn College Poetry Center of Cleveland was officially established two months after the Hutchison reading, on April 14, 1962. Dr. Randall, the Chair, was ill and in hospital, so I was named founding director by Dr. Donald Tuttle the acting chair. My collaborator in the venture was the late David French, the audio-visual technician of the College and an amateur poet who would finish his Ph.D. in history at Western Reserve and later become Dean of Erie College, not too far up the road. He and I began to tape-record poets and Center programs for the “Fenn Series of Contemporary Authors.”
Later in the spring, with no increase in budget, there was a Jazz-Poetry Festival featuring Ed Halas reading his poem “The Odyssey of Jazz” to music played by the Bobby Brack Trio. If I recall correctly a local member of the Beat movement, Jau Billera, had something to do with our booking this act. The National Federation of State Poetry Societies at the end of June held its convention on the Fenn campus, and John Crowe Ransom, editor of The Kenyon Review at Kenyon College, was the featured speaker. He gave the maiden reading of the first poem he had written in about forty years, a performance he would soon repeat at the National Poetry Festival at the Library of Congress. Both these programs were free; the jazz reading was a charity event, and all we needed to do for the Federation was allow them to use College facilities. Richard Frost, a friend from Bread Loaf, read on August 24th, and he was followed by another Bread Loafer, Robert Huff, on October 5th.
A local Afro-American writer, Louis Albion Williams, was the focus of Poetry Forum I on October 19th of 1962. Julie Suk has written a memoir of that original Poetry Forum. “My first introduction to Lew [Turco],” she wrote, “was at the Poetry Forum at Fenn College, now Cleveland State. I had just moved to Ohio from Birmingham, Alabama. Newcomer to poetry after a half-hearted painting career, I decided to venture down to the Forum and try out a few poems. I dropped my name in a basket by the door and walked in expecting a small group of readers and friends. Wrong! No smattering of people. Instead, a large and lively crowd celebrating guest speakers topped off by an AME Zion Church choir singing spirituals. ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ ‘I Wish I Knew How I’d Feel to Be Free,’ ‘There Is No Hiding Place Down Here’ — exuberant rhythms I grew up longing to listen to over and over, so much so my friends and I would crawl under revival tents whenever we found a chance to slip away from the starchy Episcopal Church. As the singers left the stage, I lost myself in applause. A thought ballooned, ‘Not an act I’d like to follow.’
“Then came Lew’s voice over the mike, ‘We’ll start the poetry readings with Julie Suk from Birmingham, Alabama. Will you please step up to the mike, Julie.’
“Mind you, this was during the time Martin Luther King was incarcerated in the Birmingham jail, the time Freedom Riders were attacked by police dogs and hosed down by the notorious Bull Conner. With my politically incorrect address and heavy drawl, I did not expect roses strewn at my feet. I did not expect those feet ever to reach the lectern, nor did I expect to survive humiliation. But somehow, with shaky voice and hands, I made it through the ordeal. Silence.
“Then Lew jumped up, grabbed the poem, and read it again, giving it a lot more than the poem itself gave. The title? Long forgotten but no matter, Lew rescued me, and thereafter I became a regular along with Loring Williams, Alberta Turner, Russell Atkins, d. a. levy, Russ Salamon, Stuart Friebert, Mary Oliver, Bill McLaughlin, James and Mary Ann Magner, Dave French, Al Cahen, Grace Butcher — some of the names I remember when I sneak now under that flap of memory.”4
Dr. Alberta Turner was the spouse of a tenured member of nearby Oberlin College’s English faculty, but as a “faculty wife” she got little chance to teach there. Stuart Friebert was also an Oberlin instructor, in the foreign language department. Mary Oliver would become well-known nationally as a poet. Atkins, another African–American poet, was co-editor of Free Lance magazine, and Bill McLaughlin was a Cleveland high school teacher. Dave French — who was recording the proceedings — and Al Cahen would inherit the editorship of American Weave when Loring retired and moved back to his native Maine. Other area people who occasionally attended the Forums and other programs of the Center were Jau Billera, mentioned earlier; Robert McGovern and Peter Corodimas, both graduate students at John Carroll University (the former taught at Ashland University in Ohio for many years and co-founded the Ashland Poetry Press); Mac Hammond, on the faculty of Western Reserve; P. K. Saha, a faculty member at Case Institute, and Sam Hudson, a talented undergraduate at Oberlin. Some of my own students, including Ronald Stone and Fay Fox, also participated.
After this forum Loring and I drove down to Washington, D. C., to attend the National Poetry Festival at the Library of Congress, an event that no one ever heard of because it took place simultaneously with the Cuban Missile Crisis. No sooner had nearly all the poets of note in the U. S., and some of those from Britain, assembled on October 22nd than notice was given that President Kennedy would address the nation to announce the Naval blockade of Cuba.
Almost everyone gathered in one room to watch the address on television. De Snodgrass was the exception, for he decided to go out drinking instead and invited me along. I declined and continued from my position at the rear of the room to peer between the ears of Robert Frost, Sir Herbert Read, John Crowe Ransom, Delmore Schwartz, John Berryman, Richard Wilbur, Randall Jarrell, Gwendolyn Brooks and many others at a television screen on which a President, who was physically no more than a couple of blocks away, was announcing that Armageddon was about to take place. It was the eeriest, most surreal literary experience of my life. (An account of the Festival, “Meters and Missiles,” appears in my book A Sheaf of Leaves: Literary Memoirs, published in 2004.) One year later President Kennedy would be assassinated. The Proceedings of the National Poetry Festival held in the Library of Congress was published by the Government Printing Office in 1964.5
The Crisis was still not resolved when Loring and I got back to Cleveland. The first “Poets for Peace” reading in the United States, protesting President Kennedy’s early involvement in what would soon be known as “the Vietnam War,” took place on Sunday, October 28th, 1962, The Plain Dealer reported the next day. “Nine poets protested for peace before a quiet crowd of 150 persons on the steps near Wade Park Lagoon in front of Cleveland Museum of Art yesterday afternoon.
“While the poetry reading was going on, three members of the security unit of the Cleveland police surveyed the crowd. There was no disturbance.” Among the readers “Four Cleveland poets — Russell Atkins, Leonard Dryanski, Mac Hammond, and Lewis Turco — read works written by them for the demonstration.”6 But all the readers, including Reuben Silver and P. K. Saha, were from the Cleveland area.
Paul Engle, my former professor in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop which he directed, did two programs in November. Carr Liggett was the guest of Poetry Forum II late in the month, and X. J. Kennedy was our December reader.
d. a. levy (sic, å la e. e. cummings), who would become a local legend as the poet-publisher of Renegade Press, has been mentioned by Julie Suk as being among those who attended the Poetry Forums. My student Russell Salamon became close friends with Levy who visited me in my office in Fenn Tower, told me that he had never graduated from high school, and asked if it would be possible for him to get into the College without the diploma. I said I'd try, and I arranged an interview for him with the admissions office. I asked him, though, please not to shoot himself in the foot, as he was wont to do, but of course, that's what he did. He deliberately botched the interview and was not allowed to enroll. After that, all he could do was come to the Poetry Forums and, of course, make a life for himself in the city.
Russell Atkins wrote me in 1967, “Well, I suppose you might have heard that d. a. levy and some of the group here have become objects of the police, FBI and narcotics agents. Much cause célèbre in the making here.” An elegy I wrote for him, “Words for White Weather,” was written on request for a memorial publication7 when d. a. committed suicide the following year, 1968. I was thankful not to be in Cleveland when that happened (nor in 1984 when Jau Billera followed d.a.’s example). I've known self-destructive people, but d. a. was world class in that regard. I suppose his death was inevitable, but it was very sad. He was such a harmless little guy, really, and not the wild Beat rebel he liked to act. On his table-top hand press levy published many interesting young poets before he took his own life, including Russell Salamon who developed the grammatic prosody called "parenthetics." Russell’s showcase for these poems, a chapbook titled Parent[hetical Pop]pies (dedicated to yours truly) appeared in 1964, the year of his graduation, from levy’s Renegade Press. Levy is a legend now, in Cleveland and the underground culture of the twenty-first century.
Loring devoted his Autumn-Winter 1963 issue of American Weave to an “Accent on Fenn College”; featured were my Fenn colleagues Calvin Towle, Clarence Rippel, Anthony Cinquemani, my student Ronald Stone, and Elizabeth Beam, the librarian. This issue also introduced to the public the critic “Wesli Court” — no one would notice for many years that this pseudonym is an anagram of my name. Ron Stone, an Afro-American undergraduate, can be seen in that picture of my class on the Fenn College web page that I mentioned earlier.
John Braine did two programs in February, 1963, and another of my former teachers at Iowa, Donald Justice, came on March 15th. The Poetry Center played host on April 26-27 to the Ohio Versewriters Conference which had as readers Russell Atkins; Jim Crenner, an Iowa friend; Irving Feldman; Mac Hammond, a Clevelander who had suffered a nervous breakdown and who began to come out of it by giving his first reading; Judson Jerome, who taught at Antioch downstate and had been co-editor of New Campus Writing 3 which in 1959 had included several of my undergraduate poems from the University of Connecticut; Alberta Turner, who would succeed me as director of the Center, and Miller Williams, my fellow Bread Loafer and, much later, my publisher at the University of Arkansas Press. Richard Wilbur closed out the year on May 24th.
During the summer of 1963 Poetry Pilot, the newsletter of the Academy of American Poets in New York City, announced that the Fenn College Poetry Center was selected with two other poetry centers nationwide to share a prize of $100.00 for furthering the cause of poetry in their communities. “The contest called for evidence of local approval, how poetry was carried to the community, how audiences were enlarged and informed, quality of the poetry, and caliber of the poets.”
Readers during my last year at Fenn, 1963-64, included Robert Mezey, an Iowa classmate who was currently teaching at Western Reserve University, and Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, Jr., who read his father’s poetry to his own guitar accompaniment. Carr Liggett delivered a lecture, “The Poetry of the Rimer’s Club,” on December 6th, but I have no recollection of the event because everyone was still walking around in some sort of dreadful dream after the assassination of President Kennedy.
Other Cleveland area poets conducted a program on January 31st of ‘64. Howard Nemerov came in February, Constance Carrier in March, Hollis Summers and others on April 17-18, and in May Richard Eberhart. By the time Howard Nemerov arrived things were more or less back to normal.
The Cleveland Poetry Center had the effect of turning a provincial downtown engineering school into a cosmopolitan literary crossroads. Nevertheless, Dr. Randolph Randall, the English Department chairman who had hired me from Iowa for my first teaching position, decided not to renew my appointment in 1964 after four years because I again refused to begin working on a Ph.D. I had told him when he hired me that he was getting a publishing writer, not a scholar, though in the event that proved to be incorrect. One doesn’t need to have a Ph.D. in order to be a scholar, a critic, or a poet — or all three. To prove it, in my age the superfluous academic hoods of two honorary doctorates weigh upon my bent back and arthritic shoulders.
2”The Sullen Art of Lewis Turco.”
3“The Lewis Turco Collection,” at
4 Steven E. Swerdfeger, editor, Lewis Turco and His Work: A Celebration, Scottsdale: Star Cloud Press, 2004, p. 196, www.StarCloudPress, 2004. ISBN 0965183599, jacketed cloth only, 243 pages, $36.95. ORDER FROM AMAZON
5Proceedings of the National Poetry Festival held in the Library of Congress, October 22-24, 1962, Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1964.
6The Plain Dealer, Monday, Oct. 29, 1962, p. 9.
7Reprinted in Poetry: Cleveland, edited by Alberta Turner. Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1971.
8 “The Lewis Turco Collection,” op. cit.
Copyright © 2009 by Lewis Turco. All righrts reserved. May not be reprinted or otherwise used without the express written consent of the author.
A Sheaf of Leaves: Literary Memoirs, www.StarCloudPress.com, 2004. ISBN 0965183564, jacketed cloth, $35.95; ISBN 0965183548, paper, $24.95, 254 pages. A continuation of Fantaseers, above. ORDER FROM AMAZON
Thank you so much for sending this! Fascinating!
All best wishes —
Cleveland State University Poetry Center
Hello Professor Turco,
Wasn't it the Fenn College Poetry Center, which then became the CSU Poetry Center?
The official name was "The Fenn College Poetry Center of Cleveland."
So what was it? Was it a Cleveland poetry center located at Fenn College or was a Fenn College poetry center located in Cleveland?
Good question, William. I guess it was both.