“Long time ago the Dena’ina did not have songs and stories. Then came the time that Crow sang for them. Till then, as they worked together and traveled, they chanted di ya du hu to keep them in time.                                                                                                                                                             Peter Kalifornsky, “Crow Story”      From the First Beginning, When the Animals Were Talking

Artist’s Proof Editions has just opened its first crowd-funder, the Kalifornsky Project on Indiegogo. I can’t give you an elevator pitch. I’ve got more to tell you, here and here, but, from the beginning, if you think it worth supporting, Artist’s Proof and I will be very grateful for your donation.

Peter Kalifornsky (1911-1993) was the first writer and the last native speaker of his dialect of Dena’ina, an Alaskan Athabaskan language. For his Dena’ina texts he was praised as a literary stylist. He was also an intellectual, who, with his theory of writing and meaning, preserved his native language, adapting the writing system he was given to the intrinsic patterns of his tongue. He was the author of traditional stories, essays, songs, word lists, commentaries. But he wanted to tell us more: the“back story,” he called it, a way of knowing the world, the visible and the invisible, which is rich, profound, demanding. Yet, he knew he would never write it, in either Dena’ina or English. He asked for a secretary.

I was an itinerant poet and an independent scholar and had lived in Athabaskan country for some years. I became his secretary.

At some time during the early 1980s, I was given a book of stories by this writer, Peter Kalifornsky, who, through his language, was related to people in whose village I had lived for a while. I was told that he was of the stature of, for example, Amos Tutuola. The stories were in Dena’ina and English, though not in fluent translations. But you could tell that this was a writer, in every sense we know the word.

One story caught my attention and then began to live with me, the “Crow Story,” about how Crow—the great Raven; they would not name a powerful creature directly—gave the first songs and stories to the People Who Sit Around the Campfire. It is a funny, clever story full of wonders. What did it mean? I thought I saw something in it, but wanted to ask the author if I had got it right.

Peter Kalifornsky was a charming host, pleased that a visitor wanted to talk about meaning. He persuaded me to return, with pen and paper in hand. For five years, I returned, again and again, with pen and paper in hand. I listened; I wrote; I asked questions; I wrote, until he joked about my “little hand making chicken scratches.” And so we went on, until by 1988, I had hundreds of pages of our translations of his stories—and of all the new stories he had written since we began talking—and of our conversations, linked by footnotes to his texts. It was an impossible manuscript.

And then he died, in 1993. Time passed. About six years ago, I returned to the task: how to prepare this manuscript for publication. I opened the box it had lain in for nearly twenty years and found (how could I have forgotten) not only the 800+ manuscript, but also: cassette tapes, for Peter Kalifornsky had recorded himself reading in Dena’ina so that we would always know how to pronounce his tongue. A Xeroxed copy of his own manuscript, also given to me. Annotated copies of his earlier publications. My hand-written field notes. Other memorabilia. None of it digitized. How to turn this glorious collection into—a book? A digital archive? A what-to-make-of-this?

And here came the iPad, and here came Apple’s free application for making books, the iBooks Author. And here came, suddenly, a sense of possibility: I could take all this beautiful material, digitize it carefully, and put it on the iPad. And Peter Kalifornsky’s people—the rest of us, too, for he did not exclude us, but welcomed us into his language—could hold his knowledge in their hands. They could read, they could hear his voice, they could examine scanned copies of his manuscript pages. They  could learn what he had wanted to tell them. “They lived life through Imagination,” he said of the Old Dena’ina, “the power of the mind.”

As we all can read and listen and imagine. At Artist’s Proof, I’ve published the first of the four volumes of his writings, our conversations, his digitized sound files, images of his manuscript, notes. Three more volumes will follow (I update Vol. 1 periodically), till the work he entrusted to me is completed, and I can take it home.

  • Vol. 1, From the First Beginning, When the Animals Were Talking: the Animal Stories
  • Vol. 2, From the Believing Time, When They Tested for the Truth
  • Vol. 3, From the Time of Law and Education
  • Vol. 4, From the Time When Things Have Been Happening to the People (“the last two or three thousand years!”)

Please join me in this enormous, thrilling work. Welcome. Thank you.


Andraž and Tomaž Šalamun

Andraž and Tomaž Šalamun,
sitting in green armchairs,
two awesome salesmen from the least.
(I meant to write from the east,
but mistyped.)
He with his madness,
I with my Christ.
Both of us stare at the smoke.

Yeah, I fuck his brain.
He loves my cries.
(I meant to write Christ,
but mistyped,
word of honor in both
The same, mum!


Tomaž Šalamun died today. Most of us read him only in translation. Was he as sardonic, as bitter, as jocular, as raunchy a poet in Slovenian? Even more, I’d guess. He was called an absurdist, which seems the only possible response in words to much of life, even in New York, where he came to live. He was a friend of some people I knew here; they liked the man very much.

Howard Sidenberg, founder of the estimable English-language press The Twisted Spoon in Prague, brought out A Ballad for Metka Krašovec, translated by Michael Biggins, in 2001, and offered me a selection of the poems for Archipelago. The volume “offers readers a unique opportunity to glimpse the author at a particular stage in his life and creative development, the poems ranging from the incantatory to reflections on his lovers, family, and country, to narrative-style recollections of stays in Mexico and the United States.”

I’ve not found this volume listed in Šalamun’s conventional bibliography. I thought it might be good to recall the book as we remember the poet. The picture, which graced A Ballad for Metka Krašovec, was of his mother.


Prologue I

God is made of wood and doused in gasoline.
I take a cigarette to burn a spider’s leg.

The gentle swaying of grasses in the wind.
Heaven’s vault is cruel.


Tomaž Šalamun, “From A Ballad for Metka Krašovec,”  tr. Michael Biggins. Archipelago, Vol. 5, No. 1
_________, The Poetry Foundation
_________, The Twisted Spoon

The poet Samuel Menashe died a little more than three years ago, on August 26, 2011. I hadn’t seen him in a while. We were introduced at a writers’ party on the Upper West Side and discovered our mutual interest in Hubert Butler. We had both visited Maidenhall; we knew a number of Irish people in common; and he, who was much older than I, had met Hubert and Peggy Butler. Some thought he was Irish, as he went there often, and poems of his were published there and published well. He began reciting, beautifully, in his cantorial baritone. 

O Lady lonely as a stone

Even here moss has grown.

I used to visit him when I still went to New York. Once he took me to lunch — was it? or to supper? or for a glass of wine?; or, I invited him — to the Boathouse, in Central Park. He was courtly, with worn collar and cuffs, white hair curling over his collar, just a bit disheveled. He pointed out to me the gondolier, who swept his long boat hopefully to our water-side table, then floated away as Samuel began telling his poems.

He gave me six poems for Archipelago, from The Niche Narrows.

The Offering

Flowers, not bread

Cast upon the water—

The dead outlast

Whatever we offer

Several years later, I asked him for more. He promised some wonderful poems which he said were variations on poems about to appear, or on old poems. Instead he sent a war story. He was 19 when he went for a soldier, in 1943, and his best friend died. He fought at the Battle of the Bulge.

Today, for a while, I wished that I had died instead of him because I think that his life would have been better than mine now is — though I have all my limbs and my senses.  Two months ago, I was thirty and I am still in pretty good form — I am just beginning to wrinkle around the eyes — but as I once said to myself with sudden sententious knowledge, a young man who go[es] to war should die.  Don’t try to make me defend this statement.  Either one knows it for oneself or one does not know it.  I think it tells the truth but not for everyone. (“Well Everyone Must Die and Today Was the 11th of December”)

“In 1950,” he wrote, “I presented a thesis at the Sorbonne called Un essai sur l’éxperience poetique (étude introspective). By poetic experience, I meant that awareness which is the source of poetry. I had been a biochemistry major before enlisting. Although I was well read for my age, the only literary influences on my word so far as I can tell were the short poems of William Blake and the English translations of the Hebrew Bible. ‘The still small voice’ of Elijah was my article of faith.” 

He did send me more poems, later, and was pleased by the title I suggested for them: Eyes Open to Praise, from “Hallelujah.” He said, “You’ve understood my work well. It is one of the most important lines I’ve ever written. Indeed, it’s pre-speech in its meaning, isn’t it?” I can almost hear his joyous laugh. He was a joyful man. I wonder if his joy was not a true act of perfect will.

His first language was Yiddish; his second, English, at age 5; his third, French, age 11. He loved his mother and father; his poems about them are affecting.

Stephen Spender: “Samuel Menashe is a poet of entirely Jewish consciousness, though on a scale almost minuscule. He is not one of the prophets, concerned with exodus, exile, and lamentation: but he is certainly a witness to the sacredness of the nation in all circumstances in life and in death. His poetry constantly reminds me of some kind of Biblical instrument — tabor or jubal — and the note it strikes is always positive and even joyous. His scale is, I repeat, very small, but he can compress an attitude to life that has an immense history into three lines.”

He was never given to length. His work unaccountably was not more widely known in this country, though it was brilliantly published in England and Ireland; but it is known by the best of serious poets. He won the Pegasus Prize “Neglected Masters” awarded by the Poetry Foundation. As part of the award, his Selected Poems was published, with an introduction by Christopher Ricks, by the Library of America in Autumn 2005. The composer Otto Leunig drew the text of his cantata No Jerusalem But This from two collections by Samuel, The Many Named Beloved and No Jerusalem But This, which included the poems I put in Archipelago. Between 2005 and 2010, the composer Ben Yarmolinsky set 37 of Samuel’s poems to music, for solo voice with accompaniment.

There is a little video of Samuel in his small apartment on Thompson Street. He is telling his poems, as he loved to do. A friend wrote me after seeing it, “I could describe every decayed, cluttered corner, crack in ceiling, desk, layering on bathtub board. Terrifying to think of living that way but he wears it all like his comfortable grey suit. I wonder if he was an Orthodox Jew, who seem to feel that cleanliness is unholy, and yet there are volumes in the bible on cleanness.”

I am so happy remembering him.



Eyes open to praise

The play of light

Upon the ceiling—

While still abed raise

The roof this morning

Rejoice as you please

Your Maker who made

This day while you slept,

Who gives grace and ease,

Whose promise is kept.


For further reading:

Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems, Expanded Edition. Christopher Ricks, ed. iBooks

Eyes Open to Praise, Archipelago, Vol. 8, No. 4

Six Poems, Archipelago, Vol. 5, No. 2

Poetry Foundation 

Poetry Archive 

Library of America 

Library of America American Poets Project

Ben Yarmolinsky, Setting Samuel Menashe’s poetry to music



A few days ago, Mr. Willie Louis died, aged 76. As an unimaginably frightened, incredibly brave young man, aged 18, he had testified at the trial of the killers of Emmett Till, who were found not guilty, though they were guilty. His name then was Willie Reed. He changed to Willie Louis, after having escaped in hiding from Mississippi and going to Chicago, where he lived “discreetly,” according to the Times, and worked as a hospital orderly.

I don’t think we ought to forget him, or what happened in 1955 near Money, Mississippi, when two white men beat the 14-year old Emmett Till to death for verbally insulting (as they saw it) a white woman. A boy who found himself in the wrong neighborhood.

You might wish to read this account of the trial by the important African American reporter James L. Hicks, which I published ten years in Archipelago, all the while remembering that, if we are indeed a nation of laws, not men, the laws, and their administration, are very often subject to the wilful interpretation of men. We might recall a recent trial in Florida, State of Florida v. George Zimmerman, in which an armed man who killed an unarmed youth (the age of Willie Reed as he was then), and was found not guilty of taking a life. We might recall the recent Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted our most important, far-reaching, successful civil rights legislation, the Voting Rights Act (1965).

Lives. Votes. Laws. Men.



“They Stand Accused by C-P Reporter:

Jimmy Hicks Charges Mss. Officials Aided Lynchers”

James L. Hicks, Cleveland Call and Post, October 8, 1955

New York, N.Y. — Here for the first time is the true story of what happened in the hectic five-day trial of two white men in Sumner, Mississippi, for the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till of Chicago.

This story has never been written before. I did not write it in Mississippi for fear of bodily harm to myself, and to my colleagues.

No one else has written it because no one else in the capacity of a reporter lived as close to it as I did.

Looking back on it now, I am ashamed that I did not throw caution to the winds and at least try to get out the story exactly as it was unfolding to me. I’m convinced, however, that if I had tried this, I would not be here in New York to write this.

. . .

I finally charge that if Leroy Collins is brought forward at this date and given all opportunity to talk where he is assured that he is not in any danger, he will be able to tell where Henry Lee Loggins is and that the two of them will prove to be the two colored men who were seen on the truck the night of the murder by Moses Wright and Willie Reed.

I believe that Henry Lee Loggins is dead and that he was disposed of because he knew too much about the case.

These are serious charges. But I welcome this opportunity to write down the evidence on which they are based.

This is the fantastic story as lived by this reporter:


Above is a digitized image of a photograph of Emmett Till, aged 13, taken by his mother.

Here is a photograph of Emmett Till’s encoffined remains, displayed openly at his mother’s insistence.



(Both images via Wikipedia, judged as fair use.)

 “We are not the country we say we are. What we are arguing about is the distance between the two.”


In the June 2002 issue of Archipelago, I published an important speech by then-Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis), the only United States senator to have voted against the USA PATRIOT Act. This speech is still timely, even as the recent leaks about the extent of NSA intercepts of metadata (and who knows what else, or how they’ve been doing it?) seem to have come as a huge surprise to so many people who should have been aware that we had long since become the National Security State. Even the usual pundits seem taken aback, as they scramble to accommodate to what they sort of knew, sort of didn’t know, and don’t really understand, because not many of us really comprehend how much we are, all of us, enmeshed systemmatically in Big Data.

Does NSA know more about any of us than Google does? Than Facebook? What are they going to do with all those data? The political blogger Charles Pierce cuts to the chase, or one of the chases — because there are parallel runs on this matter of collecting information about citizens/customers/suspects — by circling back around:


“First of all, it’s past time to re-examine everything that was done in such a panic after 9/11. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was warning us about the NSA and secrecy three decades ago. Jim Bamford has made his living writing about the NSA. These problems are not new. This re-evaluation especially includes the Patriot Act, which keeps getting renewed by a Congress which long ago abdicated its oversight role in intelligence as thoroughly as it has abdicated its War Powers. . . .

“Fear is the new normal. I lived through the Church Committee hearings. That was the last time the secret state-within-a-state was revealed to this extent, and that was by an empowered congressional committee. Business as usual opened again in 1980. We are not the country we say we are. What we are arguing about is the distance between the two.”

About a dozen years ago, the historic legal reading of the Second Amendment — that it pertained to rights and responsibilities of state-based milita and their armaments, but not to individual rights to own guns — was sharply upended and re-interpreted to allow nearly unlimited personal ownership of rifles and pistols, including those designed as man-killers. I thought the subject worth close attention and ran an occasional series in Archipelago called Living With Guns. An essay was sent me by Mary-Sherman Willis, based in family history, about a bloody battle in May 1856, in the Kansas-Missouri Border Wars. I published it: “The Fight for Kansas.” It remains relevant, because of its double subject, guns and the de facto civil war being fought on the Western selvedges of a fraying nation.

I bring the essay to your attention because of its merits, and because Mary-Sherman Willis is the author of Caveboy, A Poem, our inaugural title at Artist’s Proof Editions, a nice coincidence.

Welcome. Artist’s Proof Editions is the new venture from Archipelago Publishers, and Archipelago, the journal I published on the Web from March 1997 to March 2007. Archipelago was an old-fashioned site, each quarterly issue built by hand  in HTML, with even older-fashioned literary values loyal to the printed text. But the Web changed my mind. This new construct wasn’t — it turned out — just a way of imitating words on paper, distributing them across borders. This new medium was a cat’s-cradle of light-threads. Our words danced along those threads like dust motes. All that was solid melts into air. Our journal is ended now but remains on the Web, enmeshed in those light-threads.

And what follows? Well, we know, now, that the codex is not the only book. Here came the iPad, little window for the hand, and we guessed at once some new kind of making and reading was going to come of it. Here is our first contribution. Artist’s Proof Editions has now published the very fine chapbook Caveboy, A Poem, by Mary-Sherman Willis, with art by Collin Willis. An edition — the multi-touch book (as Apple likes to call it) — for the iPad. An edition for the hand, an old-fashioned artist’s book typed, lovingly and furiously, and assembled of paper and paste. Come and read.