Looking over My Shoulder: Roof at 35

James Sherry at the Zinc Bar Roof celebration, Nov. 17, 2012

I started ROOF Magazine at Naropa Institute in the summer of 1976 at the insistence of Allen Ginsberg and Tom Savage. Tom originally suggested documenting the exciting events that were taking place there. ROOF was how I conceived of sheltering all the different writing tendencies. The first issue of ROOF Magazine included many of America’s best known writers: Ashbery, Burroughs, Creeley, Duncan, Waldman, Notley & Berrigan, Wakowski, Rothenberg and Ginsberg to name a few. These well-known writers were supportive of what I was doing so long as it furthered the aims of their writing, but with the exception of Ashbery, I quickly found that these icons did not assume as I read in Samuel Johnson that each generation of poets was expected to advance the language, not repeat and revere.

Neither were the recognized writers supportive of alternative tendencies in writing that cut across the grain of the established conflict in American poetry between the personism of the New York School/Beat group and “academic” Modernism. Looking back on it today we see the conflict as the two sides of the Objectivism, but then it was a serious cultural divide between liberal academics and the counter culture.

The older writers simply weren’t interested in the same issues as the younger writers. My impression was confirmed when I realized that there were other people emerging in the poetry world who thought like I did, since I had by that time already written conceptual sonnets and other genre works. For the second issue of ROOF, I put out the word that I was publishing new writing by new writers. Charles Bernstein visited me for a chat and left me with the worrisome compliment that I had my head on straight. I mean who in their right mind would want to start a not-for-profit publishing venture. But we were all moving in that direction. ROOF 2 contained Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein, Hannah Weiner and others of what was to become the Language coterie. Soon after I published the third issue of Roof when we all sat on the floor at my house mailing flyers, Charles and Bruce started a new magazine and we all moved to Charles’ house on 83rd St to mail out L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E: Diane Ward, Hannah Weiner, Alan Davies, Michael Gottlieb, Nick Piombino, Peter Seaton, Ray DiPalma and others. While snail mail was still the main distribution strategy, the energy of the moment had swung decisively from a simplified prosody with political or personal content to a more complex, considered and political prosody.

The tendency included a group of about 10 poets in NY, 15 in the Bay Area, 5 in DC and a few others scattered about the country and in Canada. We began to read each other in a different way than we read any other poetry. Evaluation began to be worked in much greater detail than the usual, facebookian like/not like judgments. There were public “Talks”, started in the Bay Area by Bob Perelman and Francie Shaw and private meetings to discuss what poetry might be. There was give and take, collaboration, conversation, shared booklists and collective editing along with the usual possessive strategies. Some people stood out by writing in a comprehensible fashion, that is, readers understood what they were trying to accomplish. Styles began to emerge as clearly defined and hence repeatable, while some strategies retained an opacity that made them both the property of an individual but destined them to a readership that would conceptualize about them more than look at their individual lexical combinations and quotations.

We published ROOF, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, This, Hills, and Sun & Moon to promote this variety of approaches. People began to derisively call language writing a school and attack both its methods and its politics, but it was clear that most, not all, of the talented younger writers were interested in these issues either as an option or a threat. It was also apparent that there were as many ways to do what Ron Silliman called the writing “of which we speak” as there were people to write it. I reveled in the diversity.

As a publisher, I realized early on the negative economy of poetry. I could sell a piece of paper for a penny but if I printed a poem on it, I couldn’t give it away. Nevertheless I began to publish longer sections of people’s work at the same time that the poets were writing longer pieces. Roof also began to accept the Bay area conundrum and printed poets as Bruce first suggested grouped by geography. In 1979, after 10 issues of ROOF Magazine, the last five co-edited with Michael, I began to publish books starting with Bernstein’s Controlling Interests, and Hannah’s Little Books/Indians.

Since then Roof has published over 120 books including many by the language group and some by others who were contributing to the scene like Madeline Gins, Jackson Mac Low and Edwin Torres. As language writing began to transform or become accepted and as language writers started writing otherwise, I began to look for other strategies. I saw manuscripts that worked with electronic media in various ways like Brian Kim Stefans, flarf writers like Nada Gordon, Drew Gardner, Gary Sullivan and Kasey Mohammad, conceptual strategies by Rob Fitterman and Vanessa Place, and several people writing about the writer’s relationship to the rest of the planet like Evelyn Reilly and Kim Rosenfield. And now other strategies are emerging from writers like Trisha Low, Holly Melgard, Lanny Jordan Jackson, William Andrew Sterling, Brandon Brown and who knows what else I’m missing. I’m sure there are more amazing writers tapping frantically on their new ideas as I speak.

During the past 35 years, Roof has published some of the most influential contemporary writers and many of you read here today—your support is really gratifying. Most people think about a publisher from the perspective of what they have written and what they are reading. From the publisher’s perspective, Roof publishes trade books with a commercial look and feel, but an avant-garde, experimental, innovative, speculative, material focus on language and process. I have not been interested in the aestheticized production although we have published many beautiful books thanks to designers like Deborah Thomas, Diane Ward, Susan Bee, Brita Bergland and Lee Sherry as well as other artists like Richard Tuttle, Arakawa and a few author-designed books.

Meeting a lot of writers in my role as a publisher made me realize that new writing was not only created by individuals stretching the mold, but each individual was also exemplary and each individual was inconsistently and intermittently absorbed by the group. The various weightings and shifting of these social components focused me editorially on word grouping tactics shared by different individuals, recurrent themes and styles in different books, conversations among sections of writing done by different writers rather than the poem/book/author structure that represented how writing was usually read and discussed.

Nevertheless one always dealt with the writer as a person and the writing of the moment since that is how the writers think about it. The writers, you know yourselves, people trying to achieve—got to, got got to, and anxious moment to moment—am I ok? am I ok? am I ok? have in some ways changed character as style progressed, not less desperate but less posturing, more prolific, more goal directed all attributable to progress in writing and technology. Acknowledging the individual while seeing each in various contexts simultaneously has always driven my conscious choices although I confess to occasionally wanting to publish a writer to somehow possess her authorship. Hannah Weiner remains an example. Bob Grenier is another.

I have tried to stay centered on what is current with all the risks that fashion entails. I have tried to keep up with these new groups of writers, but always people got ahead of my reading, and I continue to be dependent on you who read and pay attention, keep your minds open and are willing to share your opinions. Sadly as I’ve gotten older I realize that younger writers often want to create their own groups and ventures, to put their own stamp on the period.

So it’s difficult to keep up. That’s why, although I am very pleased with today’s event, I have stayed away from retrospective considerations. Nevertheless the trajectory of new writing can be charted from what preceded it. Today’s a good time to revisit some of what we have accomplished together. It’s made me think about some other strategies for the press and I’ll start talking to you about them soon. For example, Roof is starting to publish its backlist electronically and anyone who wants to help proof ebooks should talk to me soon.

Again, thank you all for coming. We’re selling books for $5 each at the table. And if you aren’t too busy, please come over to my loft at 300 Bowery for some wine until it runs out.

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Presented at Roof’s 35 anniversary celebration at the Zinc Bar in New York, on Nov. 17, 2012. Photo by Charles Bernstein.