It was the perfect form of bibliomancy. There was a volume of encyclopedias strewn from La Mystique Braiding up to my apartment door on Fillmore. I grabbed the first one in reach and out fell a page that read “Some of the World’s Diamonds.” On it were radiant cuts, oval and pear, surrounded by round brilliants. On the back laid a slender hand with a marquise diamond. It was cut and tapered, and worn as a ring to maximize carat weight.

Earlier that fall my friend Jeff Butler and I had started a small “garage days” gallery out of my office at work. New College of California was showing signs of closing and I knew my tenure there was coming to a quick close. What better way to avoid reality than to create one’s own universe as a force field against it. Tear up the carpet, strip the walls, trick the lighting, and gut the place! What remained were my desk, a typewriter I’d spray-painted gold, and that bubbling drain in the floor. The building used to be a mortuary and turns out my office was the old embalming room.

As a tribute to the poet Lew Welch we named the new space Lew Gallery. The first show was Jeff’s “Clinks & My If’s,” then Corina Bilandzija’s “Night & Day,” and later David Meltzer’s collages. During a faculty meeting I gave David a piece of paper and he drew the profile of a face with a snake coming out its head. I whispered “title of show?” and above the tongue he wrote “artworks.”


I had always wanted to curate a group show with drafts of poems, with the thought that the space given would then read like an anthology (in progress). When I came across “Some of the World’s Diamonds” I knew I had the title for the final show and instantly recalled a wall in our apartment that my wife had rearranged. Simply by moving a few collages and broadsides the whole living room opened up and started a new conversation on its own. Why not grant the embalming room the same opportunity and ask a group of friends to each contribute one or two pieces from off the walls of their home?

I wasn’t shocked by everyone’s generosity but more humbled by how stoked they were to participate. When I visited Bill Berkson I knew the Philip Gustons were off limits though I did joke about borrowing one and padlocking my door. Instead, I chose an unpublished Frank O’Hara broadside, “F.Y.I. (PRIX DE BEAUTE),” and from his kitchen, George Schneeman’s “Wallet.” When visiting David Meltzer, I received a George Herms painting, “Stalking the Yarrow” and one by John Brandi, “clown man listening to an Underground Spring.” At Andrew McKinley’s, owner of Adobe Bookshop, I left with a Julianna Bright painting and an anonymous, found portrait.

Others hand delivered theirs: Colter Jacobsen brought a Todd Bura piece; Cedar Sigo, a collage by Johnny Ray Huston; Larry Rinder, a Christopher Garrett painting; Steve Dickinson, photos of Robert Duncan’s blackboards by David Levi Strauss; Duncan McNaughton, a photo of himself by Norma Cole circa the early 80’s. Those not in SF mailed theirs: Darin Klein sent a piece by Devendra Barnhart; Sarah Cain, a print by Xylor Jane; Will Yackulic, his St. Mark’s Poetry Project membership card signed by Taylor Mead; Kevin Opstedal, a drawing by Donald Guravich; Joanne Kyger, a photo of Berkson circa ‘71 by Paul Alexander, etc.

Within weeks there were over two-dozen contributions, more than enough to fill those fifteen-foot walls. Equal to the experience of receiving the pieces was the process of hanging them. Some begged to be beside one another while others demanded to be walls apart. Regardless of their placement, pieces (and people) that might have never been brought together were given an atmosphere to co-exist and start an entirely new conversation.

After the opening night, I often found that the space required a reordering of the pieces. It was almost as if they needed to move around so as not to feel trapped. The more I changed their location the more interesting and comfortable the room would get. Some evenings when I needed help finishing a poem I’d go to the embalming room and stare at the latest arrangement. That well-known Spicer line never rang so true and came to mind every time: “language is part of the furniture of the room.”


*collages by Johnny Ray Huston

Originally Published: April 12th, 2013

Poet Micah Ballard was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and earned an MA and MFA from the New College of California. He studied with poet Joanne Kyger and has written about John Wieners; the influence of the San Francisco Renaissance poets can be seen in his work. He has published...