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, Bogg. Many 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.
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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 awayI 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
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
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
Love, listens to my last poem.
(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
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 ArtsThere's a statue of Diana,the goddess of the hunt.When I peek beneathher marble skirt,I see she has noreal existencebecause her legs are sculpted togetherat the upper thigh.No human could livelike that! I point this outto a guy in the officebut he doesn't careabout art. He likes politics.He shows me a photoof Reagan giving a speechunder a bust of Lenin.I tell him I'd rather seethe bust of the blondesecretary down the hall.I'm kidding, I prefer brunettes,but I wonderwhy humor and artso often emergefrom the clothes
we hide them under.
Small Exchange by John Elsberg, Lilliput Review, #104
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world of man--
in a little stone field
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