Opening Milestones: An Auto Biography

(Sketch for a chapter of Leaf Mosaic)

by Karl Young


I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now.
- Charles Olson

I spent most of my childhood and adolescence in a factory town whose primary industry was car manufacture. This coincided with the golden age of automobile - the time when cars inspired everything from a sense of increased freedom to elevated status to heightened sexuality to extended prosperity. The latter fed into and out of the backbone of the U.S. economy, whose center was automotive production and all that went with it, from road construction to service industries. A skilled machinist at American Motors could own his own home, give his daughters weddings as lavish as those of the rich back in the old country, send his sons to college, and buy a new car every five or six years. When he bought one of those new cars, he showed it off to everyone in the neighborhood, and few could or wanted to escape a ride in the new chariot, still filled with the perfume unique to produce fresh from the assembly line. The cars took on duties ranging from trips to the lumber yard to weekend outings to at least one extended vacation a year. Freeways, drive-in movies and restaurants, roadside attractions and parks expanded rapidly. Cars took children home from the delivery room a few days after they were born, brought them to the dentist, the doctor, the clothing store, the ice cream stand, acting as a thread that tied their lives together. The boys made model cars and began driving surreptitiously in their early teens, and gaining their drivers' licenses became their most important rite of passage. Their own cars brought a sense of liberation and power. Cars were to race, to show off, and to engage in amorous and/or sexual pursuits. Girls could get their own cars, too, and this formed a stage in the move toward feminism when they grew older. Many young men rebuilt used cars, and multiple sub-cultures rose around this personalization of the country's habit of inventing things. Self-confidence was high among them: their fathers had taken on the world, fighting a war on two fronts, and had won. Everyone, from the lowest ranking GI to the woman who went to work or kept the home fires burning, contributed to the victory. Working on cars contributed to young men's assumption that they could accomplish anything if they put their mind to it. On a less flashy level, expanded education went along with the prosperity and optimism of the time, and those who became interested in poetry felt that they needed no authorization to write it themselves, and to publish it using whatever machinery they could find. Their poetry could be brash, including some of the bragging that was part of car culture. Confidence also lead them to rebel against the domestic social inequities and the colonialist wars of the empire of automobile.

As a child of the automobile empire, cars and car culture did as much to shape my personality and orientation to the world as any external factor. In the literary background, the novels of Jack Kerouac and the poetry of Allen Ginsberg never strayed too far from automobiles, and the Beat scene was essentially a literary movement on wheels. On a more thoughtful level, Ezra Pound and Charles Olson were among the elders who influenced me most. Following their lead, I began a long poem with no foreseeable conclusion, as a means of exploration, as a kind of travel into the spaces of language. As a child of car culture, I took driving as the guiding principle of that long poem. Pound's particular sense of sonority lead me to correlatives in jazz and rock music and both, perhaps oddly, lead me to learn to read Anglo-Saxon poetry. Olson's Call Me Ishmael gave me what I needed to synthesize these divergent strands. In his view, Herman Melville's Moby Dick presented a microcosm of his age in the whaling ship, acting as both symbol and actual implementation of the social, psychological, and commercial nexus of the society which it upheld. The car was to the America of the 1960s very much what the whaling ship had been in Melville's day, taking into account the changes in the industrial order and shifts in democratization between the centuries.

In 1970, I spent a good deal of time driving, as I had for many years. Getting around town and traveling with a purpose were part of the daily life I took for granted. On a vacation in the summer of that year, I wrote a set of poems while driving, using variations on Old Norse metrics. After writing these poems, I understood the potential for something larger, an open-ended sequence such as those which Pound and Olson created. At this time, the two tribal elders were still alive, and the last lines of The Cantos and Maximus could still be written; they were still part of the living poetry scene. This was also a time of seeking origins, and the Anglo-Saxon models for verse forms acted as a means of searching the roots of the language spoken in the culture of cars. Anglo-Saxon poetry included curious resonances with the world around me. "The Seafarer" was a poem of mobility. Beowulf is nothing if not international: it's hero swims the Rhine river, for instance, and one of the poem's most complex passages deals with the politics of Sweden, the homeland of my father's parents. This was a poetry that came from a society never far from migrant roots, and a culture in which Christianity and other Mediterranean tides were in a position similar to Buddhism and alternate modes of thought and behavior in the America of my time. In the autumn of 1970, I began a concerted effort at translating "The Wanderer," which became one of the nodes of the first set of Milestones. At this time, like many of my contemporaries, I was also strongly influenced by the poetry of three Spanish language poets: Lorca, Neruda, and Vallejo, and I had begun seriously checking out the art and poetry of pre-Columbian Mexico. Four cultures seemed to be intersecting in the America I saw around me: North Atlantic, Latin American, African American, and East Asian. The cultural syncretism of the American midwest seemed similar to that which was going on in England when such poems as "The Wanderer" and Beowulf were composed. At this time, as now, all sorts of people argued for the purity of the English language, the supremacy of North Atlantic culture and the American way of life. This seemed particularly preposterous to me, since these entities began in syncretism and hadn't stopped evolving through constant grafts and exchanges. I'd written my share of socio-political rants during the 1960s, and had no desire to continue in that mode. But it seemed important to keep the roots of interchange going in Milestones. I included translations or adaptations of Anglo-Saxon, Spanish, and Chinese poems in the work, as milestones in their own right, as personal guides, and as basic elements in the process of cultural change. The African American contribution came in more subtly, through the influnce of Blues and Jazz on the poems. Aside from the polemic value of these integrated poems, they contribued to the contrasting textures of the series as a whole.

I had a lot of things going on between 1970 to 1973, the time that would later become Set 1 of Milestones. This was an era of massive social change, still close to the running battle of semi-apocalyptic cataclysms of the late 60s. Revolution was in the air as well as in the tires of my car.

Before this time, I had girlfriends who resided with me for as long as several months. Still, the two who had taken turns dominating my emotions during my middle teens and those I became involved with in my later teens and early twenties had given me the sense that love and eros were occasional by-products of something like a war. At times, this encouraged me to withdraw into myself and avoid romantic involvements. In 1970 I began my first real cohabitation - a marriage in all but legal terms. This relationship could be stormy, but it also involved seeing how utterly beautiful my partner could be, how profoundly I could bond with her, and how truly happy I could be. Parts of Milestones were for her, directly or indirectly. The erotic and amorous aspects of car culture would have played a major role in the poems in any event, but she gave the series a focus, as her ideas on art and life influenced my own. She became the patroness of Set 1 and each of the succeeding sets had its own matriarch.

I was going through the process of moving from the mimeo and makeshift letterpress printing I had done earlier to other means of producing books. This included working at a number of print shops before setting up my own cottage industry. This, of course, required buying a house that could act as the cottage. I was able to make a significant initial payment with money left to me by my grandfather. This kept the mortgage low, but meant that I had to make regular payments. It was an ideal house: plenty of room, a basement suitable for printing equipment, a studio on the second floor and the rest of the upper story an apartment to rent as a source of income. For me, the place had, as realtors put it, location, location, and location: in the Bohemian area where I had lived as a student, a few blocks west of the University of Wisconsin's Golda Maier Memorial Library, and a few blocks east of the Milwaukee River. As a connoisseur of libraries, this one didn't match those of, say, Harvard or the University of Chicago, but it still had a great collection, and (particularly important for a nocturnal creature) it stayed open all night. The Milwaukee River was a magnificent aberration at this point in its course. Trails lead down from my street in Riverside Heights, and if you walked down to the river from the house you could easily forget that you were in the middle of what was then the tenth largest city in the country. There was still a downtown at the time, and it was only a few minutes away by car, a few more by buss.

The cottage industry focused on finding ways of applying the thinking of Peter Kropotkin to the current milieu. A fair number of other people were engaged in similar pursuits. The revolutionary drive of the 60s was morphing into the "as if" mode of the 70s. This involved assuming that the glorious revolution that everybody blabbered about had already happened, and to act "as if" it had, building - in the words of the Preamble to the I.W.W. Constitution - the new society within the shell of the old. Obviously, the hallucinations of the 60s had not yet ended. Patricia Wagner and I began the task of setting up an arts center with no capitol and no financial support whatsoever. Mark Haupert joined us almost immediately. Such a project was of course completely impossible, which is one of the reasons we could accomplish it - hallucinations, however "unreal" they may seem, can nonetheless move people to move mountains. We may not have budged Mount Sinai, but, armed and financed with nothing but optimism, utopian ideals, raging egos, and nearly complete naiveté, we ran an art gallery, book store, and reading venue, and acted as an umbrella for workshops in everything from bread baking to urban planning, and as a host for feminist groups, co-ops, film societies, and everything else our overheated psyches could devise or stumble upon. Olson may have taken space as the central fact to Americans, and so it was in setting up the Water Street Arts Center. Theater X, an experimental theater group, rented a large, rickety building which the city planed to pull down for freeway construction. The elevated freeway from which a planed ramp would have debouched came so close to the building that you could easily toss spitballs onto the hood of passing cars from one of the third story windows. The rent Theater X paid was minimal, and the space they had was considerably more than they needed. What they did need was someone to take care of the building when they weren't around, not only during the normal course of the day and the week, but also during periods when they toured in other cities. We took care of the building in lieu of paying rent. Space was all we needed. A theater is what you need for poetry readings, film showings, performance art, and musical events. Mark had tried running a commercial book store, and when that folded we had a stock of trade books as the nucleus for a store. Alternative publishers at the time could produce books and magazines easily enough (this was still the age of do-it- yourself printing), but had difficulty distributing them. It was also a time when many were moved by something like messianic zeal: the word, literary or political, was the real news of the day, and getting it out meant more than anything else. I had little trouble building up what was apparently one of the three largest stocks of alternative publications in the midwest on nothing more than consignment and barter. All sorts of people needed space for their projects, and we felt we could all benefit from the synergy of sharing the space that Theater X had shared with us. We arranged with the U.W. Art Department to give credit in gallery management to student interns. That the first of the gallery directors became the patroness of Milestones Set 2 could be seen as one of the additional benefits of working together. Those who joined us automatically became members of the board of directors. One of the basic rules I established when we started was that no decision could be made without unanimous consent of all board members. No voting. This assured that there would be no winners or losers among the membership. When there was contention, it meant one of several things: To create universal consensus, compromises and trade-offs might be necessary. At times, if a few members, or even a single person, wanted something badly enough, she or he could hold out until we reached an adequate solution. Another firm rule was that at the beginning of meetings we put all the intoxicants in one place, and no one could use them until we concluded business. This gave members an extra incentive to come to agreement, and the party afterwards became more of a party once we had the meeting out of the way. At the time, the arts were "hip," and many members felt a certain amount of prestige as part of the organization. Sex played an important role in motivation. One of our jokes was that nobody gets paid, but everybody gets laid. Still, although I don't think any members avoided amorous relations with at least one other member, our antics were relatively mild given the tenor of the times. Other social possibilities entered into the nature of benefits, bringing together people practicing the same arts or interested in the same political programs. At times it also aided in collaboration between disciplines.

Also backed with naiveté, midwestern stubbornness, and horse sense, Tom Montag started Margins magazine a block from one of my temporary residences before buying the house. As one of its editors, I took it for granted that within a few years it would become the country's most important alternative press review journal.

I wrote voluminously at this time, and many of the early Milestones began as lines written on envelopes and other scraps of paper while driving. I took books along with me and memorized poems in Anglo-Saxon and Spanish while listening to the rock music on the radio, arguing about politics or listening to the stories of those who rode with me, watching whatever was going on the street, and trying to figure out how to produce books with as close to no money as possible. Celebration of life on the street and on the road could take on nearly any tone on the scale - contemplative, aggressive, boasting, satisfied, sorrowful, elegiac.

In this, as in some of my other comments, I have emphasized classics that helped shape the work. In part, this reflects the kind of sources that get me started. In part, it reflects a sort of stability and common ground which I imagine readers of different backgrounds and orientations can relate to in one way or another. Writers closer to my own time, including contemporaries tend not to get acknowledged. Aside from the problem of wanting to put forward those whom readers will be likely to know, the influence of near contemporaries tends to be something so close to me that I don't notice it in the same way that I notice classics. Influences and ideas from contemporary writers have played a crucial role in all my work, including those in which I work closely with source material, such as Clouds Over Fortjade or Middle American Dialogues. As Milestones progressed, I picked up all sorts of ideas from my contemporaries - particularly in the early stages when I was discovering poetry rapidly, in what at times seemed like avalanches and bursts of revelation. Since a lot of these poets get left out elsewhere, I'll list some of the most prominent here. John Kingsley Shannon, d.a.levy, Ted Enslin, Jerry Rothenberg, Toby Olson, Hilary Ayer, Ted Berrigan, Paul Blackburn, Joel Oppenheimer, Diane Wakoski, Robert Kelly, Denisse Levertov, Jackson Mac Low, Robert Duncan, Rochelle Owens, Michael McClure, Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, bpNichol were among the most prominent in Set 1. In Set 2, I began writing poems to poets I visited, in part as an acknowledgment, in part as a characteristic of a mobile literary scene. The influence of people, most of them not poets, with whom I talked probably made an impression at least as deep as that of poets.

Early in the series, it became apparent that many of the poems dealt with driving as a part of book production, and that one of the things the work was doing was charting something like the process that the finished work would eventually pass through to become a book. Printing presses became more prominent machines as the work progressed, and detached themselves from cars, as vehicles in their own right, in Set 4.

In 1974, I made the decision to divide the work according to patronesses. Several poems in Set 2 were written before those in Set 1, but found their way into Set 2 since they seemed more appropriate to its patroness. This became a bit strange later on. I began Set 3 in the spring of 1980 on the way to my grandmother's funeral, doing early drafts in the car while driving. On that day, I sketched out a sequence of poems in tribute to her. They began with her birth in Sweden, her immigration to America alone, at the age of thirteen, fleeing from the only option the death of her parents left her: prostitution. It also took in her meeting with her future husband, who had left Sweden full of grand ideas about taking part in the building of Utopia in the New World. The events of her life, and reflections on her death would have formed an extended verse narrative. During the time I had written Sets 1 and 2, I visited her in the nursing home where she resided every week when I was not traveling too far away, and when circumstances did not prevent it. I pulled poems based on these visits out of the previous Sets for use in Set 3. I've known for many years that Set 3 would never be finished, and that I wouldn't keep the incomplete drafts of the Set. Still, I leave the numbering of sets with 3 missing in tribute to my grandmother.

My initial drafts of Set 5 made no sense, and I scrapped it. Set 6 did not cohere. This takes on a separate twist: its patroness and I spent a lot of time driving, but during most of our time together, I had ceased writing. I have since then refrained from trying to make Sets, and simply written miscellaneous drafts. To some extent, this may reflect decrease in mobility after the time of Set 6. It becomes part of the larger condition of writing virtually no poetry during the decade of the 1990s. Not continuing Milestones because I had largely ceased writing seems like a tautology, but I think that goes considerably deeper. Milestones essentially comes from an era, and a youth culture, whose time has passed, just as automobile manufacture no longer forms one of the mainstays of North American life, and people take their cars for granted. Given the quality of scattering and dispersal inherent to car culture, the work's incompletion may have a significance beyond the open-endedness I had initially envisioned.

Walter Tisdale produced a magnificent edition of Set 1 in 1986. Despite the printing presses that appear early in the series and become more prominent as the work progresses, Sets 2 and 4 remain unpublished in book form, though many individual entries have appeared in magazines and anthologies.

In the early 1990s, I told Phil Foss, in jest, that if I did a complete edition, I'd like to put a photo of myself on the cover, dressed in black, with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in one of the sleeves of my T-shirt, leaning against a 56 Buick, looking like Johnny Cash or Hank Williams, as a form of self-satire. Phil had a friend who had restored a 56 Buick, and gave me a photo of himself and his friend standing next to the car. Phil's friend's name is Carlos, he comes from Chile, and has distinctly Latin features. Phil is a fellow Scandinavian-American, and Carlos looks like an embodiment of the Latin voice that runs through the poems. Perhaps a cover with this photo would be appropriate enough - particularly with the author absent and two alter egos taking his place. In any case, Phil and I got our share of laughs out of this possibility, and such a locker-room joke could seem like a good scherzo with which to sum up a book coming from the car culture.

At the time Phil and I were making jokes about the photo, Nancy Leavitt began doing illuminated versions of poems from Milestones. Nancy gets classed as a calligrapher, though in my view this is simply one of the means of entering the larger field of book arts. For a number of years, most of her work in one way or another centered on Milestones. Most of Nancy's workings of the poems should be seen as independent works, since her treatment of them goes beyond calligraphy and illustration to a type of work similar to my Clouds Over Fortjade. They take a source text as a base for something new which both asserts its independence and carries on the original. Oddly and delightfully enough, she did carpet pages for Walter Tisdale's magnificent edition of my translation of "The Seafarer," a poem that acted as one of the foundations of Milestones. Solar Dreams, the last book of mine that Walter produced, uses some of the sections dealing with Central Mexican mythology and some of my drawings of pages of Codex Borgia. This book also acts as a colaboration rather than a passive vehicle for my work. Kent Kasuboski printed an exemplary broadside of one of the poems from Set 2 for Friends of Typography in 1986, one of the few works he printed before devoting himself entirely to paper making. At the end of his short life, this became partcularly important to his friends, since his paper, no matter how maginifcent, doesn't make the same kind of memorial as something printed. Parts of Milestones have found their way into other collaborations, and the nature of participation by readers, writers, and artists of various sorts adds more to the work than I could achieve by adding further Sets.

A poem from Set 2 was elegantly carved into one of the walls of Milwaukee's Convention Center as part of a project to celebrate Wisconsin's literary heritage in a public and official place. The designers placed it near the door of a theater. Though they didn't consult me about this, I couldn't think of better place for it. This is a place with a lot of traffic, and I have seen such things as visual and sound poetry as means of making up for the losses poetry incurred after it became separated from theater and other public arts. This seems just as appropriate, and as delightful, as the photo of the two guys standing next to the car.

Adolescent dreams should come to an end. The adventures that these poems get themselves into follow roads more appropriate to a larger world.


Go to poems from Milestones, Set 1
Go to poems from Milestones, Set 2 at Spunk Library

Go to Beginning of essays on Water Street Arts Center and its child, Woodland Pattern
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