Essay

D.I.Y. Detroit

How the Alternative Press shaped the art of a city left for dead.

by Emily Warn
D.I.Y. Detroit

Detroit Riots

It was 1967 and Detroit was burning. The poet Ken Mikolowski and his wife, the painter Ann Mikolowski, sprayed water through garden hoses to douse embers landing on the roof of their home in the western section of the city. Several days earlier, Detroit had erupted into violence so deadly and destructive that the governor labeled it an insurrection, a legal designation that allowed Lyndon B. Johnson to send in federal troops. “The fires spread indiscriminately,” Ken recalls today. “When they reached our neighborhood the fire department refused to fight them because of alleged snipers and street violence.” Five days later, when the federal troops had restored some semblance of order, 43 people were dead, 467 injured, and 7,200 in jail, and more than 2,000 buildings had been destroyed. “But no one in our neighborhood was about to flee," Ken explains, "either then or afterward, during the great white flight to the suburbs.” 

The Mikolowskis were part of the Artists’ Workshop, a community of artists, poets, and musicians who lived and worked in the Cass Corridor, a gritty, once-grand neighborhood surrounding Wayne State University. In cheaply rented, previously abandoned storefronts and homes, members of the community ran half a dozen or so presses and published small magazines, including Fifth Estate, the longest-running anarchist newspaper in the United States. On its pages, political commentary and notices about anti-war rallies and gallery shows were printed alongside poetry.

“There was a lot of talent in Detroit with no place to get together,” says poet George Tysh, who co-founded the Artists’ Workshop in 1964 with poets John Sinclair and Robin Eichele. Many artists and writers migrated downtown from the suburbs to enroll in creative writing and other courses at Wayne, but chafed at its institutional sluggishness. They organized lively readings and performances at the nearby Red Door Gallery, but soon wanted a larger space for bigger audiences. In the fall of 1964, Tysh, Sinclair, and Eichele found three apartment buildings to rent near campus, and 25 people willing to pay a little more than their rent to cover the cost of renting a fourth building where they set up the Artists’ Workshop. Ken and Ann lived three blocks away in a housing project.

Soon more than a hundred or so people gathered to listen on Sunday afternoons. Local poets would read and musicians would jam. Sinclair, then a correspondent for Downbeat magazine, knew a few of the great jazz musicians of the time, such as Cannonball Adderley, Charles Moore, and Sun Ra. Word spread and before long many musicians in town for gigs at Bakers Keyboard Lounge or Thee Minor Key would stop by to play for free.

“One Sunday I was giving a poetry reading,” Ken remembers, “and a guy got up and started accompanying me on the piano. I looked around and saw it was Archie Shepp.  Things like that happened regularly.” 

Andrei Codrescu, then a 20-year-old newly arrived from Romania, found his way to the Artists' Workshop when it was in full swing.  It was the first place he took his “immigrant improv and commie nylon parka and tried hard to get laid, and did.” He remembers it as a time and place when anyone could shine.  “I was there when the black and white Artists' Workshop sign went psychedelic multihued . . . it was quite an egalitarian scene: all you needed was genius and you were a star.”

In 1965,  Sinclair and other Detroit poets headed west to attend the Berkeley Poetry Conference where they met Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and Robert Creeley. “Mixing with the heady lineup of artists, both in Detroit and Berkeley,” Tysh says, “woke us up to what was going on in the rest of the country.”

On Tap

Out of this communal energy there emerged two artistic political projects rooted in Detroit’s urban scene that eventually gained national significance. In 1969, Ken and Ann dragged a discarded letterpress from the Artists’ Workshop into the basement of their home and began The Alternative Press (TAP). It provided the perfect way for a poet and an artist to collaborate, and allowed them, in the spirit of the times, to publish poetry to share with the community. “At first we printed broadsides to hand out as freebies on the street,” Ken said recently. “Later, out of necessity, we came up with the idea of selling subscriptions to numbered packets of poetry.” 

The other, more well-known project began in 1967 when Sinclair became the manager of the MC5, a ranting proto-punk band intent on fomenting a cultural revolt among America’s youth. During intermission at one of their concerts, Ken and Allen Ginsberg gave a joint poetry reading. The MC5, John Sinclair, and TAP are inseparable from the way in which this moment of utopian optimism and radical politics unfolded in Detroit and nationally.

Several years before Ken and Ann launched TAP, Ken was the editor of the Wayne Review, the university’s literary journal, overseen by faculty advisor W.D. Snodgrass. Ken wanted to experiment with paper stock and color. Snodgrass didn’t. Ken wanted to publish more Detroit poets such as Tysh, Sinclair, Donna Brook, and Faye Kicknosway, than the journal could hold.

The letterpress offered artistic freedom for Ken and Ann. Money was scarce when they started and neither had experience operating a press. “But neither did Leonard and Virginia Woolf when they started Hogarth Press,” Ken and Ann told themselves. “When type wore down or the letterpress jammed, we muddled our way through questions at the printer supply store: ‘You know that part of the press that goes around and gets stuck?’ The printers were amused. They’d sell us a $5 can of ink and give us a $50 dollar printing lesson for free.”

Pushing the Envelope

From the start, the Mikolowskis printed on functional formats—things people use every day, such as bookmarks, postcards, and bumper stickers—to surprise people into reading poems. Their model was correspondence art, a form invented by Ray Johnson, a figure seminal to the Pop Art school and Fluxus movements. For his “New York Correspondence School” project, he sent cut-up collages, found objects, and even snakeskins through the U.S. mail.

Ken and Ann’s formats were useful and beautiful but they needed subscribers. Giving away poetry on the streets didn’t pay expenses or help TAP find a readership. They rounded up friends and poets to be their first subscribers and started sending out numbered packets—manila envelopes stuffed with whatever poetry they printed.  There were poetry postcards, bumper stickers, broadsides, bookmarks—even a poetry tea bag. Poems ranged from terrific to awful, from political rants to meditations, from humorous one-liners to longer lyrics. Work by the likes of Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley, Anne Waldman, or Alice Notley were shuffled among poets no one had heard of but were happy to discover.

“TAP was not like a magazine with a predictable editorial tone,” poet Ron Padgett explains. “There were no special theme issues, no set page format, no contributors’ notes. The packets would arrive again and again when you’d least expect them—part of the organic, casual nature of the project.”

During the 1970s, Ken and Ann’s home became a community center both for Detroit poets and for poets visiting to give readings at Wayne State or the Detroit Institute of Arts. (The Artists' Workshop morphed into Trans-Love Energies, an umbrella group for several communes, when Sinclair moved to Ann Arbor to escape police harassment.) To many visiting artists, such as Robert Creeley, Anne Waldman, and John Yau, Ken and Ann were the real thing, uncalculating and uninterested in rubbing elbows to snag an academic job. They did not promote an aesthetic as much as allow generative conversations and friendships to form around a table. 

Both Ken and Ann had a tremendous capacity for friendship. A tall, focused man, Ken still carries himself as straight-backed, as he did in photos of him setting type in TAP’s studio. Wry and prepossessing, he complemented Ann’s welcoming nature.  “They played off one another,” poet John Yau says of them. “Ken was self-deprecating, making it seem that Ann was the more important of the two.  But then Ann would say, ‘Oh, Ken is so good at doing this and that.’ Then Ken would say, ‘Oh no, it’s Ann.’ They wouldn’t have gotten to know so many people without the other.”

Friends remember Ann, who died of cancer in 1999, as incredibly warm. John Yau and Ron Padgett both admit to falling completely in love with her. “Ann was a saint, just like everybody says,” her close friend the poet Donna Brook explains, “but one with humor and whimsy and talent.”  Anne Waldman remembers her as “a deep, kind, meditative person, and very clear and directed in her own work as an individual artist and as a collaborator with Ken . . . She had a lovely face—strong, open. Walt Whitman speaks of the beauties of ‘candor’. Ann Mikolowski had that in abundance.”

In Ann’s remarkable miniature portraits, painted with the single hair of a paintbrush, you can literally see her candor. Based on her photographs of their poet and painter friends, they capture moments of camaraderie when public figures—such  as Ginsberg, Ted Berrigan, Jim Carroll, Ron Padgett, and Joe Brainard—were not acting like public figures.

With their goodwill and gorgeous hand-set poetry, Ken and Ann served as social glue and their home a poetry incubator, first for the Cass Corridor artists and then for poets and artists across the country. A sort of loose cooperative of poets wrote the poems from porches in Iowa City, stoops in the East Village, bars in Bolinas, farms in Minnesota, kitchens in Detroit’s inner city and suburbs, and just about everywhere else. When poets finished a few, they’d send them in, hoping Ken or Ann would find one worthy enough to print.

When they accumulated enough poems to fill envelopes, Ken and Ann would ship them off to the subscribers on their list, which eventually grew to between 300 and 500. Tom Clark wrote in 1974 from Bolinas, “Them bumper-stickers were Boss! So’s all this new batch . . . Here’s an idea for a bookmark: REMEMBER TOMORROW.”  Gary Snyder wrote to ask, “How’d you like to do me a postcard?” and enclosed this one entitled "Clear Cut":

Forestry. “How
Many People
Were harvested?
In Viet Nam?” 

clear-cut. “Some
Were children,
Some were
Over-ripe.”

From that same post-Beat Bolinas hangout, Creeley wrote that he hadn’t written much during his stay but had an idea for a postcard:

One day after another—
perfect.
They all fit.

His poem fit perfectly on the postcard as Ken and Ann printed it. Ann’s precision and attentiveness to letterpress designs were matched by Ken’s feeling for how to make the line breaks and white spaces work within them. They printed on every weight and size of paper, from colorful card stock to textured paper or vellum. They would mix and match complementary fonts and make both the type and paper work with Ann’s and other visual artists’ images made in all manner of media—crayons, paint, wood engraving, even metal. 

The poems’ aesthetics were equally various.  Some poets were heavily influenced by Charles Olson, whom they viewed, according to Tysh, “as a cultural politician. Poetry was not just literature but a way to transform culture. Poets of this persuasion tended to write performance poetry while others were drawn to the minimalist lyrics of Robert Creeley or Cid Corman.”  Ken’s own work is both minimalist and performative, and similarly, his genius as a publisher lay in his ability to appreciate all poetic forms and schools.  His selections included Deep Image poetry, documentary-political poetry, Second Generation New York School poetry, and Surrealist poetry, along with confessional and more traditional lyrics.

Marquette Prison, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, 1971

While Ken and Ann exercised freedom of expression through The Alternative Press, Artists' Workshop co-founder Sinclair sat in a maximum-security prison on the shores of frigid Lake Superior, where he’d been locked up since 1969 for possession of two marijuana joints.  Inmate number 123507 as he was known, penned a letter on jailhouse stationery to his “brother & sister”—Ken and Ann.  Sinclair thanked them for sending along a broadside of his poem “The Alternative Press,” which he had written the year before in the same cell. “Thank you,” he wrote, “& keep it up!”

A Detroit detective, posing first as a fellow hippie in 1965 and later as a bearded candle-maker in 1967, easily infiltrated the free-wheeling atmosphere of Artists’ Workshop and made two-separate arrests of Sinclair for possessing marijuana. The authorities were less concerned about the pot than about Sinclair’s activities as manager of MC5 and his desire to use the band, and rock and roll in general, as a cultural means to educate white youth about political change. Kids escaping from the drag of suburban life flocked to the Grande Ballroom in inner-city Detroit to listen to the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams, Motherfucker” concerts. (The MC5 would also play, some say for eight hours straight, at the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention.)

In response to police harassment of Sinclair himself, and the growing scene around the MC5, Sinclair and others founded the White Panther Party in 1968 in solidarity with Bobby Seale’s Black Panthers. During Nixon’s presidency the WPP was labeled by the FBI as one of the country’s most dangerous radical organizations, and it was certainly one of the most investigated.  The White Panther Party’s manifesto, published in Fifth Estate, called for any means necessary—“rock n’ roll, dope and fucking in the streets”—to accomplish a cultural and economic revolution. The manifesto declared, in part:

We demand the end of money.

Free food, clothes, housing, dope, music, bodies, medical care—everything;

Free access to the information media—free the technology from the greed creeps . . .

Free the people from their “leaders”

Oddly, the list does not include poetry, an incendiary tool Sinclair ranked as highly as rock and roll. Writing from Amsterdam where he now lives, Sinclair says, “Poetry was at the root of all our activity. Rob Tyner was a poet, I was a poet, we led the movement so to speak. I was inspired further by the work of my mentors Allen Ginsberg and Edward Sanders, the exemplification of the poet as public figure and political leader.” Both Ginsberg and Sanders were frequent contributors to TAP from its early years and onward. 

"Poetry has moved  . . . almost 3000 years," he wrote to Ken and Ann in 1971:

from the openness of the oral situation, the daily life of the people, into books and universities and little magazines that is, away from the life of the people, and it can certainly be brought back into that life but not without some effort.  Anyway, these postcards & bookmarks are really a start, John Giorno’s dial-a-poem trick in NYC is a start, rock and roll is a start, we’re getting a start and it’ll be something to [see] (& hear) when the verse/music is fully reclaimed by the people. Right on to that!

During Sinclair’s first year in prison in 1969, isolated in his cell and mulling over the political movement happening several hundred miles to the south, Sinclair wrote his poem "The Alternative Press.” It explodes into verse, delivering a charge to his poet-comrades to keep the presses rolling. In the poem’s wordplay and associative rush, Sinclair lays bare its poetic and political process—its shaping energies—making the case that publishing and writing poems are inseparable from living one's life, all of which commingle to wake the slumbering masses:

Press. Presses. Free Poems, oh yes,

a free press

of our own. Or to put it one more way,

“What we demand is the unity

of politics and art, the unity of content

& form, the unity of revolutionary political content

and the highest possible perfection

of artistic form. Right on, Brother Mao!

And we will press that alternative

in the face of whatever it is

would not have us free – we will press it,

and press it,

until our lives themselves

become the poem

Endings

In 1969, Allen Ginsberg had stayed with the Mikolowskis to raise money for John Sinclair’s legal defense. Ginsberg returned to Ann Arbor in 1971 to help organize an event in support of freeing Ken—a rally and rock concert that would become one of the most famous of the era. Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers provided security, and John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Bob Seger, and Phil Ochs stirred up the crowd from the stage. (After Lennon wrote his song for Sinclair—later featured on Lennon’s Some Time in New York City album—the FBI began surveilling him, beginning their effort to boot him from the country.) Three days after the concert, Sinclair was released from prison due to a related legal decision.

In that same year, when Newsweek declared Detroit not only the worst city not only in America but in the history of the world, the response of Cass Corridor artists was “macho delight,” Ken wrote in the catalogue of an exhibition of Cass Corridor artists at the Elaine L. Jacob Gallery in 2009. Figuratively living nowhere, in a place that New York and Los Angeles critics ignored, they were unfettered, using, as Ken would write in the catalogue, the “materials at hand (whatever you have) to make art.”

At least Ken and Ann were making art. 

“While others were under the bed inspecting zen gardens of macrobiotic mushrooms, the Mikolowskis were in the basement with a 1904 letterset press—growing poems.” This unattributed statement opens JUICE, a chapbook put together by contributors to celebrate TAP’s first five years.  In it, Allen Ginsberg sums up TAP’s contribution:

Surprise teaching to see fine-printed basement press postcards of haiku-brief poems and fine-grained heavy paper mirror-sized placards of odd genius big poems occasionally issuing from Mikolowski’s hands year after year in Detroit. . . .The attention given to each poem made it possible, were it a good poem, to see it as an isolated mental event—having a small perfectly defined place in a world gone mad with monster breakable petrochemical machines.  Detroit’s Alternative Press products will outlast the auto industry.

Every few months for 30-odd years (1969—1999), subscribers to The Alternative Press received a manila envelope full of poetry.  And then in 1999, when Ann died, the envelopes stopped.

With her passing, one-half of the heart and one-half of the TAP collaboration were missing. It would take Ken seven more years to compile the last issue because of his grief. Much of the work in it seemed to signal the end of the project if not the era. On one postcard is the 2007 final issue, a one-line poem by Paul Hoover: OPPRESSION STUDIES FIELD TRIP CANCELLED. On another postcard, a handwritten poem by Ed Sanders reads:

The pretty red/orange dress

Miriam wore

To the Halloween party in ‘75

 

25 years later

chewed by a mouse

& consigned to           

                        ∞

Originally Published: April 20, 2011

COMMENTS (8)

On April 23, 2011 at 12:21pm Cara Diaconoff wrote:
What a gorgeous article. The ending is quite stunning. Thanks for bringing this news of recent history!

On April 25, 2011 at 9:24am Larry O. Dean wrote:
I was Ken's student at UM's Residential College in the '80s. I was also a TAP subscriber for many years. I still have much of the beautiful work from the press. Labor of love doesn't go into it.

I wish this went into even further detail but I'm very happy to see tribute being paid not just to the press, but to Ken and Ann as well as everyone in their orbit.

On April 25, 2011 at 10:04am Michael Mikolowski wrote:
Well done.

On April 25, 2011 at 10:46am tom clark wrote:
What ever was not to love about Ken and Ann?

On April 25, 2011 at 2:33pm Valerie Trueblood wrote:
What a superb essay, so full of information and feeling. Haven't read
anything in a long time that made me so long for the past--and
Detroit's painful past at that, where the wry, humane, revolutionary
figures Warn paints here did their work. This should be a book.

On April 25, 2011 at 3:16pm Sandra Schemske wrote:
Ken and Ann Mikolowski and the group of artists working around the campus of Wayne State University known as the Cass Corridor were part of an extraordinary community who were energized not only by the politics of revolution but thrived on the juices of each other's talents.
Thanks for a great article acknowledging the creativity, power and courage of The Alternative Press.

On April 27, 2011 at 6:59am Dr. Marty Ruddon Sirmons wrote:
I was a student at WSU, grad 1971. Now I am one of many who moved for work, the Detroit Diaspora. I retired early to write and my main character these days is from downtown Detroit and lives in the Cass Corridor. The article brings back a lot of good memories. There was a gritty, artistic and forceful atmosphere in those days. That atmoshpere left a permanent mark on many of us.

On April 30, 2011 at 11:35am Elaine Equi wrote:
Thanks for this superb history. I've long considered The Alternative
Press one of the most innovative of all small presses. Would receive
their mailings of poem postcards, bumper stickers, bookmarks etc. with
great delight!

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 Emily  Warn

Biography

Emily Warn was born in San Francisco and grew up in California and Detroit. She earned degrees from Kalamazoo College and the University of Washington. Her full-length collections of poetry include The Leaf Path (1982), The Novice Insomniac (1996), and Shadow Architect (2008). She has published two chapbooks: The Book of Esther (1986) and Highway Suite (1987) and is the founding editor of poetryfoundation.org, Warn’s poems and . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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