Friday, October 19, 2012

Small Press Friday: John Elsberg, Rest in Peace

  Photo from ČERVENÁ BARVA Press

A while back, a friend emailed me to say John Elsberg had died.  John was a fine poet and the long time editor of the American version (and ultimate the British version when they merged) of the seminal small press magazine, BoggMany of the finest small press writers of recent generations were published there, or wish they had been.

I met John at a small press poetry fest (Chester A. White!) in Pittsburgh back in the 80s sponsored by Harry Calhoun's Pig in a Poke / Pig in a Pamphlet productions. I've posted about that weekend previously, at the time of the death of another participant, Lou McKee.  John was a gentleman and a solid editor and, though I didn't interact with him much that weekend - there were too many far less sober personalities to bounce off of - I got to know him a little better over the years as we corresponded and I ended up publishing a number of his shorter pieces.

I knew I wanted to do a little tribute to his generous spirit, so I started looking around for info about him.

So what's taken so long?

Well, because I could find precious little information. There is a fine short obit here by Wilson Wyatt. Aside from that, not much, at least on the net. So, I contacted a few people from the small press scene who'd met John and invited them to submit their thoughts or, in some cases, poems concerning John Elsberg. Their responses follow.

But first, I'd like to begin though with a very unusual production of John's from 1998, published by Jim Kacian's Red Moon Press. The "book," A Week in the Lake District, was a finalist for Virginia Poetry Book of the Year (Virginia State Library), and below you will get an inkling why.

click to enlarge
click to enlarge

There are some solid poems here - the whole is something of a haiku journal, complete with artwork, as pictured above. There is a sense of observation and a lovely picaresque quality, along with a poem that occasionally jumps out of the narrative that to resonate in a variety. The poems are all monostitch, one-line haiku. Here's a couple, including the opener

arriving    branches brush the side of the bus

If one can image the state of excitation at arriving at one's long sought destination, the branches add a quality that must have been at once nerve wracking and exhilarating.

the hiking guide's wife   her porcelain dolls

Sometimes we see the extraordinary in the ordinary, especially in an unfamiliar locale. This could at once be lovely or horrific depending on the mood, at once pulling the reader into the poem to interact.

warm sun   the sheepdog barks when she finds water

This reminds me of the famous Issa haiku of the dog leading the family to a grave.

       Visiting the graves
The old dog
        Leads the way

In John's poem, the sheepdog, although hot itself, is barking to let its companions know what has been discovered. Both poems, Issa's and John's, bring out the sentient quality of each animal in a truly lovely way.


Following are the responses from a number of small press folks I mentioned contacting. After those, you'll find a broadside entitled Small Exchange, which I published, and is now in electronic form (LR #104, April 1999).

It seems to me that sharing John's work with everyone is probably the best possible tribute I might give him. If anyone would like a paper copy, I'll send it to you free for a standard sized SASE, one first class stamp only  (send to: Lilliput Review, Don Wentworth, Editor, 282 Main Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15201). Or you can throw a dollar in the Paypal donation coffer on the right side bar of this with a note saying it is for the John Ellsberg broadside and I'll send it along.

We'll begin with Jim Kacian, then Rick Peabody with a reminiscence, David Greisman of Abbey magazine, Ron Androla with a set of poems for John, Harry Calhoun with a few thoughts and a poem, and then John's broadside


Jim Kacian, editor, Red Moon Press:

On publishing A Week in the Lake District:  That was fairly early in the life of red moon press, and I was interested in trying my hand at some new designs and working with new materials. The "pages" were printed on gilclear, which is non-absorbent, so once we printed them (it was printed locally here in winchester [ed.: Winchester, VA]) we used up all the available counterspace laying pages around so they could dry without smearing, (which) took days. Once dry, the pages were cut into strips, hand-assembled and ordered, then drilled and tied with a ribbon, using a bone catchment, and placed in hand-made slipcases you've seen the result: certainly a quirky book of haiku, but also distinctive. We do have a few copies left though i don't list them on my website, figuring I'll probably sell them at our 25th anniversary, 6 years away

I met John at the Bethesda (Maryland) Book Fair, we had adjacent kiosks in 1994 (i think it was) neither one of us sold much, but we had time to get to know each other. We admired each others hat, which is what started the conversation: they were similar, his a western-style wide-brim, mine from Australia. From that we asked about each other's work, and when he discovered i published haiku (mirabile dictu!) we were off. We've stayed in touch these nearly 20 years, mainly through sharing books and notes, and he's published some of my work in Bogg over time.
I'm sorry to hear he's gone—it’s certainly unexpected—he was always lively and energetic, and though I know it happens to all of us, I didn't expect John to go for some time
You might add that John was a champion of small press gatherings and readings ...


Richard Peabody, Editor, Gargoyle:

John took me seriously when I was starting out. He made me feel comfortable and relevant as both a poet and editor. Somehow he had the ability to glide between the strata of academic poets, indie poets, and open mike poets. He was comfortable talking to any and all of them. He was quick with a smile, an anecdote, a suggestion, a laugh. He was a buffer for me in my early Writer’s Center days because he would maintain my legitimacy to the powers that be who wrote me off as another in a long line of angry brats. He listened to me and I took his advice. When I floundered about with Gargoyle and was overwhelmed with submissions he came aboard as a Contributing Editor in 1977, and after a job offer sent me to North Carolina, he stepped in as Fiction Editor from 1979-1981.

John via Bogg, was my first intro to the thriving British indie press scene. Through him I came in contact with Andy Darlington, Steve Sneyd, Graham Sykes, Pete Mortimer, Tina Fulker, and tons more.

I was just going through his papers and files today with John’s wife Connie. There was a file entitled “Rick Peabody Chapbook.”  We’d talked about that 5-6 years ago. And there was the file. John still planning it as a project down the road. I'm floored.

 When Zenon Slawinski asked me to takeover a floundering radio show on WPFW called “Writer’s Workshop on the Air” I enlisted John, along with Kevin Urick, Eric Baizer, and guests co-hosts throughout our 2-year run back in the 70s. Those tapes are all part of the Pacifica archive.

Impossible to accept that he’s gone.

In a separate email, Rick also mentioned that John contracted liver cancer which took him in 3 weeks from diagnosis to death and that there were only 3 poets at the little get together at the house. There was no service open to anybody but family. 


David Greisman, publisher, Abbey

I did not know John well, but our two or three dozen encounters over the years were something to treasure.  I did write a few words on John's passing in the last Abbey. Rick's got a great remembrance coming out in the Delaware Poetry Review, and Eric Greinke, who collaborated with John on two chapbooks recently, has an equally nice piece in the new Presa.

As I've probably said before, I ripped off John's approach to organizing poems in something other than the standard alphabetical approach.  "Ripped off", yes, but I could never equal the wonderfully sneaky way he'd place poems in Bogg.   John's history with Abbey spread over 32 years and some 21 appearances (including an interview early on in Abbey's existence and later a very funny self-interview in Abbey #100).  I also lucked out to print a number of his poems in that 32-year span, work that was simultaneously precise in phrasing yet never devoid of his underlying passion for language and life.

In some recent emails with Rick, I mentioned what I always thought was a certain twinkle in John's eyes whenever we'd meet up, whether that was at some of our lunches -- we were both for quite a long time federal government employees -- with Rick at The Irish Times just west of Union Station in Washington or at readings at the various Writer's Center locations over the past few decades.   He seemed to relish so much, whether it was family, friends, or literature.  

Not your typical poet/publisher and thank god for that.


Ron Androla, Pressure Press:

Haiku The Dragonfly

(For John Elsberg, r.i.p.)

On reversible water
An orange dragonfly hovers a
Moment in wet time


Winter, as white as
Who I think I have become,
Whirls like an anvil siren


Toast the Potomac
With our cloudy beers –
John, you fill with yes


Precision demands French words
Focus focus & focus
Dreamy, Washington poet


Dragonfly mysticism
A billion eye bulbs burst
Tasting rocks with toes


Evening ends across
Ends of the evening cross
Crucified by poetry

The Moment Of A Poem

(For John Elsberg, r.i.p.)

We crab down pieces of a mossy,
Rock cliff, fast, stop, fast, freeze,
Fast left. Skeleton bone surrounds
Our meat & sense of existence.
Orange shell eggs our cold
Disgust & so much seagull shit
Spatters against this side of the
World. “I wish I was a blue cat,”
You dream you say. A poem is
Always a dream. A toilet bowl fills
With blue crabs, severe cliffs, &
What poets in England discover:


Alone With You

(for John Elsberg, r.i.p.)

My love, her green eye,
Her blue eye, & the flow
I feel of her
Love, touches an edge
Of my gray goatee.
Preceding an epiphany of
Shatter, like a
Proton tambourine,
To be a
Then, with correct
Integrity, shoot a shotgun
Full of blood & veins
At the Moon. My love,
Her mysterious actions,
Her odd, visual renditions,
& the rush I feel
Of her
Love, listens to my last poem.

His Pipe

(for John Elsberg, r.i.p.)

If burning bacon grease is
Music, specifically as intricate
As Jazz, Monk, Coltrane, D.C.

Traffic, brushing teeth with
Black jello, to be a flesh flute
As apple trees turn to dreams

Shuddering against another
Quaking sunset in the center of
History; a black stem

Perspires, the pipe
Is so goddamn, deliciously
Hot. Fire plums at the poets.

They are reading Mr. Williams,
Failing to fit what exists with
What never occurs

Blistering From History

(for John Elsberg, r.i.p.)

Tiny finches, I half-smile
From my office chair.
30 years ago I realize most
Everything that is D.C. Is
Concrete, even a few atoms
Tucked in a blade of grass
Are cement here. I accept
This observational precision:
Eisenhower was our last
President. Read & study.
It amuses me to talk to
Toxic cows.

Face (for John Elsberg, r.i.p.)

A generous, chunky cheese
Sandwich, a pint of whiskey,
A few packs of Marlboro's,
Mags & poems, late '70's
On a 15-hour bus south at
3 in the morning. Arriving,

I am to look into a crowd for a
Man holding an issue of
BOGG in front of him.
This is John Elsberg.
This is John Elsberg driving his
Wife's small car to their

Flat where we feast on
Spaghetti & wine.
This is my first, ever, reading,
Next afternoon at someplace
Named The Writer's
Center – John got me there.


What can I say? You know he came to a few of the Pig in a Poke readings in the 80s and he published for my money one of the great quirky and quintessential small press mags of that period in Bogg. His taste and sense of humor and style will be sadly missed. He was like David Greisman of Abbey with a slightly higher budget.

He was also a fine poet, as you say. One tribute that I can offer to him, and you can share this or keep it to yourself, but a poem of mine that he had the balls to publish in Bogg way back when found its way into my collection of my older stuff, Retro. It's still a showstopper when I use it for comic relief in my readings and I always think of John when I read it. Here it is. Requiscat in pace, Mr. Elsberg. 

In The Hallway Outside The Dean's Office At The College Of Fine Arts

There's a statue of Diana,
the goddess of the hunt.
When I peek beneath
her marble skirt,
I see she has no

real existence
because her legs are sculpted together
at the upper thigh.
No human could live
like that!  I point this out

to a guy in the office
but he doesn't care
about art.  He likes politics.
He shows me a photo
of Reagan giving a speech

under a bust of Lenin.
I tell him I'd rather see
the bust of the blonde
secretary down the hall.
I'm kidding, I prefer brunettes,

but I wonder
why humor and art
so often emerge
from the clothes
we hide them under. 


Small Exchange by John Elsberg, Lilliput Review, #104

(if you have difficulty with the widget below, click here)

When browsing the issue, navigate with the bar across the top of the screen - you can change the page view by clicking on the single or double page icons on the right of the bar or use the slider on the left to zoom in. Flip pages back and forth with the arrows.

R.I.P., John.


world of man--
in a little stone field
catching fleas
translated by David G. Lanoue


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Go to the LitRock web site for a list of all 138 songs


Charles Gramlich said...

We've lost too many good ones lately.

Michael Dylan Welch said...

Don, if you were having difficulty finding information about John's passing, I found a short obituary at, which lists John's birth and death dates as August 4, 1945 to July 28, 2012. He was 66.

Sad to hear of John's passing. I was honoured to have had my poetry published in Bogg, and always appreciated John's generous spirit and his enthusiasm for a variety of poetry genres, and of course small-press publishing.

On September 4 I received a copy of his new tanka book with Eric Greinke, All This Dark: 24 Tanka Sequences, with no mention that John had passed away. Eric Greinke's bio at the back of the book says the following: "All This Dark is his second collaboration with John Elsberg. They are working on a third."

Here is the last poem in the book, fitting for autumn:

perfect children
choosing perfect pumpkins
in early twilight
we still don't know
how deep the darkness gets

Anonymous said...

I didn't know him or his work, Don. Now I do on account of this gathering you assembled. So, now I place John Elsberg's "The Stone" here, as tribute to is warmth. Beautiful broadside, btw, cover art, color. Thanks, Donna

Constance said...

Thank you, Don, for sharing the broadside. It is beautiful. I am very sorry for the loss to you and his friends and family. Peace, Constance

Ed Baker said...

I recall meeting him when I went over to that Writer's Center book fair to meet Jim K. who had been publishing me in Frogpond John Elsberg was set-up next to Jim K. All three of us were wearing our "spiffy" hats... when I found out that John lived in D.C. and knew Union Station... off I went as I grew up 5 blocks from the train station. We also had poet-friends around D.C. and College Park... connections to Gargoyal, and Voyages, and etc. Nice, friendly, open guy. He liked my recounting of the train coming through the station
and landing on the news-stand. I regret not closer exchanges...with him and a few others. This book fair must have been about 1996 or 97 or 98 as that is when I started writing again stated off with "shorties" as a way into making every word do it s job and count.

one I wrote in that time after coming back (into poetry/writing)
and finding that so many who I had known had died... Cid liked this one as it
also connected to/with Basho's "frog" poem. Today, here it is
again for John Elsberg:

so many frogs
in one pond

Ed Baker said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gerald (SK14) said...

Can't believe I've only just heard this news via John F Haines' "Handshake". I first met John in Cambridge just a few days after the birth of his son. He stayed with me at my parent's home one week and we took him to meet George Cairncross in Filey who started Bogg which John eventually took over. Much later I published his collection "Sailor". So much more I could say - will do a blogpost sometime when I've gathered more thoughts together.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Thanks for your note here - John, such a gentleman, and a fine editor and poet.

I remember the Sailor collection. Please do the blog post you are thinking about and, if you can remember, let me know and I will make sure it gets passed on to others.

Though, of course, all things pass, when it comes to small press folks, I think to provide at least one more moment in the sun is important.

all the best,
Don Issa's Untidy Hut/Lilliput Review

Gerald (SK14) said...

There really is a paucity of stuff on the net about him - I just dug out from a chest of drawers correspondence relating to the time of publishing Sailor (1999) - have the original cover design by Wayne Hogan which I'll rescan shortly. Thought I had a photo somewhere but have rummaged through a drawful of stuff and not found it. Do read Patricia Prime's review at

Gerald (SK14) said...

I've now published by in memoriam piece on Ackworth born, gone West

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Thanks so much for the note and review, Gerald.

I, too, was struck by the paucity of material about John, his own work plus the yeoman's job he did on Bogg.

It would be nice if all this material could be gathered up into a 'permanent' John Elsberg tribute page.

How quickly the small press poet is forgotten.


Ed Baker said...

he's local to me ...
here is something

I used to go each year to that book fair.... met Jim Kacian there AND
as I recall, John Elsberg was set-up with some books / mags next to Jim... all three of us, as I recall
were wearing hats

sorry now that

-when I was (sort-of)"involved" in the local scene
that I didn't 'pay attention'

-and that I dropped out for 30 + years well, sorry that I missed some neat folks and their "stuff"