UNBEARABLES PORTFOLIO III
Over the two years it took me to compile Up Is Up, But So Is Down: New York's Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992, I came to know the Unbearables well, first as writers, then as people. In the early days of the book's composition, I contacted Ron Kolm, the group's unofficial archivist, with a list of out-of-print materials. A few days later we met at a coffee shop on Broadway near NYU. He showed up carrying two shopping bags filled with what I'd requested (issues of Public Illumination Magazine and Appearances), along with dozens of books and loose papers that included his work and that of his fellow Unbearables.
Ron and I continued meeting up over the next year. Sometimes he came not only with books, but with other members of the group. I got to know half a dozen or so of the Unbearables this way. Later, I sat down with some of them in readings, bookstores, and bars across Manhattan. In the end, the Unbearables have a big presence in the
book. Fittingly, a number of the inclusions are collaborations.
After Up Is Up was published, I organized a number of readings to support the book. To keep things varied, I asked other people to curate several nights. In one such instance, the Unbearables put together an event at ABC No Rio, which was hosted by Jim Feast. It was one of the liveliest happenings: We brought our own six packs, it seemed like someone forgot to turn on the heat, folks read in short bursts, and the crowd wasn't afraid to shout back. There were more than a dozen readers, but we were done in no time. Importantly, it didn't feel like it was about one writer or another, but rather the overall feel and fabric of the group. There were more than a few Up Is Up readings in New York--including an Unbearables night at Fusion Arts and a Redtape magazine-themed event at Gathering Of The Tribes--but this one felt most like old-school teamwork.
The final NYC reading took place at the Poetry Project with Richard Hell, Eileen Myles, and Maggie Dubris. The last reading associated with the book, though, occurred at Virginia Tech, where Robert Siegle (author of Suburban Ambush: Downtown Writing and the Fiction of Insurgency) has been teaching the works of the Unbearables and Downtown writing in general for years, and featured key members of the group. I drove south in a rented van with Ron, Jim Feast, Jill Rapaport, and Carl Watson. After the reading, we held a panel in front of close to 100 students: The writers finished each others sentences, cut each other off, laughed at each other's jokes: It was real-time collaboration.
A year or so later, I taught a class based on the book at NYU. When it came time to focus on collaboration, I asked Ron to speak to my students about the Unbearables and their process--the way they assembled magazines (The National Poetry Magazine Of The Lower East Side, The Unbearables Assembling Magazine), their various anthologies (The Crimes Of The Beats, et al), the infamous and unruly Unbearables readings and actions (including their picketing the New Yorker), the classic piece of invasive book art, The Unbearables Manual Of Style. I wanted my students to understand the way these authors included each other in their work, and how they weren't afraid to share a byline.
The Third Unbearables Portfolio was created in 1997. It showcases something you see often with the Unbearables: Visual artists like David Sandlin, James Romberger, and Thomas Zummer joining their imagery with the words of the authors, the usual suspects, in a way that seems like they were birthed by the same minds. Or at least that they were meant to be together somehow. It's a dense, intuitive, impressive collection--an example, and a good one, maybe even a hallmark. But it shouldn't be seen in a vacuum. Instead, use it as a starting point, then step away to see where the overlaps continue into the '80s and '90s but also into the future.
As New York City's landscape shifts, and in some ways crumbles, the Downtown of old becomes more difficult to see in the chain stores and shiny streets. Still, it's hard to imagine the Unbearables will ever stop. That's another important byproduct of their collaboration: As the city shifts and the grit dissolves around them, they remain stalwarts, because, in ways more important than the metaphorical, they're their own community. In fact, I bet some Unbearables are cooking up something or other in a Manhattan dive bar as I write this.