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Laughing Bear Newsletter, Issue Number Three
edited by Tom Person
On the following page is an essay by Howard Robertson, an LB #2/3 and #6 writer. I hope that such essays on any subject concerning small press and literature (but especially ones concerning experimental writing and its history) will become regular features in this newsletter>
It is intended that, after enough have been collected, an anthology will be put together of the best. Also, some will be reprinted in Laughing Bear magazine.
The question has come up of the expense of putting out this newsletter. Limited to 100 copies, thus far, it costs approx. $8.00 to put out this issue. The money does not come out of that slated for LB #2/3. And I believe that the time and money expenditure on my part is worth it to keep the people involved in the magazine aware of what's happening to it. Also, the newsletter is the most important part of Laughing Bear Press' prison program. Prisoners requesting copies of the mag are automatically put on the newsletter mailing list. You can help the newsletter by submitting essays, news items, correspondence, anything concerning literature and small press.
Subscriptions are needed to help with Laughing Bear's finances. Grants have been sought, but they don't apply to #2/3. If you have a library in your neighborhood, suggesting they carry the magazine will usually result in at least an inquiry, and usually a three-year subscription. Most libraries welcome suggestions on new publications to carry. A four issue (one year) subscription is $5.00 and that includes being put on the newsletter mailing list.
Nothing has changed from the last newsletter concerning #2/3, except that I'm looking for ways to cut corners on production. Any suggestions would be appreciated.
#4 has been held up by the printer's schedule and should get to press next week.
#5 is expected to arrive here from New York any day now (all 1 to 4 subscriptions are being lengthened to include #5).
Laughing Bear Press
Antoni Gronowicz, poet and author of Polish Profiles and An Orange Full of Dreams, has requested that I print the correspondence following Howard Robertson's essay. The letters concern an interview of Issac Bashevis singer by Philip roth in The New York Times Book Review of Feb. 13, 1977.
Laughing Bear Press is not taking sides in the question of someone being right or wrong. Mr. Singer is invited to answer Mr. Gronowicz if he wishes. Copies will be sent to him and the Times.
The reasons for printing this correspondence are (1) that any issue concerning any aspect of literature past or present should concern us all; (2) without debate over an issue like this, the details become oversimplified, vague and meaningless; (3) the writing of pre-war Poland was an important period in literature and the interview and these letters give valuable insight. It's important to mention that after reading the interview I found Mr. Roth to be a neutral figure.
What Is To Be Done Visually? by Howard W. Robertson
First of all, exclude from question all currently written traditional or "confessional" poetry. Neglect the art of, by, and for the museum-keepers. throw the Richard Wilburs and William Empsons and Robert Lowells and Theodore Roethkes and James Dickeys overboard from the Mayakovskian space-shuttle of modernity. that done, begin with the beginning, Walt Whitman. From there, move through Exra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and e. e. cummings to San Francisco, New York, and Black Mountain, North Carolina. Absorb an evolution of schools and manifestoes, imagism, vorticism, objectivism, projectivism. A few names: Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Robert duncan, Gary Snyder. A wrong turn has been made. We are dead-ended, shackled to the line, to the breath unit. We have failed to "habit ourselves to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of our lives." Our poems are not vortices but linear dissipations of the original Vision. Try again. Return to the things themselves, and this time try also the spaces between the things themselves. A few more names: Eugen Gomringer, the DeCampos brothers, Haroldo and Augusto, Diter Rot, Pierre and Ilse Garnier, Ian Hamilton finlay, Emmett Williams. Something is still missing. Our poetry is a formal device, an aesthetic mechanism. We are on the surface of our discovery. Those with courage lack the vision to plunge deeper, and vice-versa. Disregard for meaning becomes a doctrinal position blocking the approaches to authenticity. The old, true visions wait for us to resurrect them into our own decades. Visual poetry is a medium for visionaries.
Howard Robertson is a poet, novelist, librarian, graduate student, and father. Having wandered the world and returned to his ancestral Oregon home, he sees himself as Odysseus, if not Quixote.
If Israel Joshua Singer, the famous Yiddish novelist were alive today, he would have been saddened to read what his younger brother Issac Bashevis Singer had to say to Philip Roth in an interview in The New York Times Book Review of February 13th on the relations that existed between Jewish and Polish writers before the Second World War. When Issac Singer says that ". . . We Yiddish writers looked at them [Polish writers of Jewish background] as people who left their roots and culture and became a part of Polish culture, which we considered younger and perhaps less important than our culture. . ." I wonder what he is talking about.
When as a young Polish poet back in 1935, I approached several Yiddish authors to join a congress organized by writers to defend all cultures against fascism, not one refused. This congress, held in May 1936, was a success and received assistance from such interntionally prominent figures as Romain Rolland, André Malraux, Jules Romains, André Gide, Joseph Roth, Leon Feutchwanger, and Ernst Toller. In pre-war Poland no significant differences existed between Yiddish, Ukrainian, and Polish writers. It was one intellectual family whose only worries were liberty and progress in literature. We read and translated each other's works. I, for example, helped to translate such Yiddish writers as Israel Ashendorf, Naum Bomze, Rachel Korn and Jacob Schudrich. They translated their poems into Polish prose which I, in turn, put into poetical form. In no othr country except Poland were there so many periodicals printed in Yiddish or as many dailies in the Polish language with a Zionist spirit like Warsaw's Nasz Przeglad or Lwow's Chwila. A Polish Jew, Mieczyslaw Grydzewski was the editor-in-chief of the most prestigious literary weekly in Poland, Wiadomosci Literackie, in which the top Polish, and in translation, Yiddish, Hebrew, and Ukrainian writers were published. The most important and powerful publishing houses such as Geberthner & Wolf, Hoesick Co., Przeworski Pub., Arct Co., and one half of Roj, were in Jewish hands. They published the work of all cultural currents.
Only in the last two years before World War II did we witness in Poland the intensity of anti-Jewish propaganda on the part of the government to placate Hitler, who invaded and destroyed the entire country in September, 1939. In these last two years Polish Progressive intelligentsia, workers and peasants, were oppressed and killed by the Polish police. I feel great sadness in my heart that Mr. Singer did not bother to mention these Polish intellectuals who fought and died for human dignity. At that time, they were not called goyim, but brothers.
Yet all Mr. Singer can say about the relationship of writers of Jewish extraction in Poland with other writers is that even though they were "really rulers of the literary field, they were cautious about the fact that they were Jews." I don't remember the poets Julian Tuwim or Antoni Slonimski, or the great critic Emil Breiter behaving cautiously in artistic circles. Was Grydzewski "cautious" in publishing? At that time, the religious background of a painter, musician, or writer was no barrier to his being recognized or to his assumption of a prestigious institutional role. What is more, the highest government officials deemed it an honor to associate with any of these men. The writers in turn were glad, indifferent, or as in the case of Tuwim later expressed second thoughts about such associations. In a letter he wrote to his sister, Irene, on March 26, 1942, he says, "It must have been some tragic quirk of mine that allowed me to always get drunk with generals, government ministers, and state officials." Yet Mr. Singer insists that this man was "cautious." He also states that Jewish writers were considered as "intruders" or were "despised." Which writers? Names please. Dates please. Quotes please.
Instead of hard facts, there are weak and equivocating words and phrases like "I don't know," "probably," "maybe," etc. But Mr. Singer does state unequivocally that Jewish writers who wrote in Polish were "all leftist or considered leftist by old Polish writers who looked upon these Jewish writers, actually, as intruders." I do not wish to cite many names due to space, but I ask him, was Slonimski who all his life remained anti-Soviet, a leftist? Was Jozef Wittlin or powerful Grydzewski? Or was Bruno Schulz, the ostensible subject of the interview?
Schulz was widely published in the early 1930's in leading Polish literary periodicals. His first book, Cinammon Shops, was well-received when it came out in January, 1935. He personally showed me clippings from Yiddish, French, and German newspapers which had published his stories. Yet in his interview Mr. Singer claims he had never heard of Schultz during the time Schulz was writing. It seems very strange that he would not have not have heard of Schulz just because he was in another city. Would a New York City writer not have heard of a Southern author for the same reason? And Lwow rivaled Warsaw in terms of cultural accomplishment. Everyone who was anyone in the literary world of one city was aware of everyone who was anyone in the other. No matter. No one outside his own family and circle of friends had yet heard of the young journalist Issac Bashevis Singer. Only of his brother, Israel Joshua, a man of both intellect and heart, a great writer in Yiddish or in any language.
Schulz made such a critical impact that Prof. K. Czachowski in his semi-official A Portrait of Contemporary Polish Literature, published by State School Book Company in Warsaw and Lwow in 1936, devoted several pages to his work. Of Cinammon shops was written: "This debut is in its art so completely different, unprecedented, and mature, that it does not appear to have any precursors; here we have an enormously unique literary event. . . The main element in Schulz's writings is vision, and I declare that he does not have an equal master in literature, and perhaps even in world literature>" S. I. Witkiewicz, whose plays today are performed world-wide had this to say also: "Schulz has in his prose the same elements that Micinski had in his poetry, the knack of blending pictures with sounds and a foresight which forms an absolute unity and creates new complicated values. I feel some parts of his prose are examples of Pure Form."
But instead, therefore, of trying to testify to the richness of the interchange between Polish and Yiddish literature, Mr. Issac Singer chooses to fan discord. Jewish writers "tried of course to know Poland better than the Poles, in which they succeeded. But still the Poles said they have nothing to do with us." Or: " They [Polish writers of Jewish background] felt that we Yiddish writers were writing for ignorant people, poor people, people without education, while they were writing for people who went to universities." Or better yet: "Why the hell don't they write in their own jargon, their own Yiddish what do they want from us Poles?" Again, this infernal, unsubstantiated "they." Who, Mr. Singer? Actually, no one. all this supposition merely represents the darker side of Mr. Singer's imagination."
Even when it comes to his Yiddish rivals Mr. Singer finds nasty things to say. He denies that Agnon was telling the truth when Agnon said he never read Kafka. On whose authority? Mr. Singer knows better about Mr. Agnon than Mr. Agnon himself? Singer makes him out to be either a fool or a liar.
I offer one final example of what can be most charitably be described as Singer's failure to think things through. In response to the question put to him by Philip Roth as to "why Schulz wrote in Polish rather in Yiddish?" Mr. singer has this to say: "It was a natural thing that people who themselves spoke Polish brought up their children in this way. Whether it was good or bad I don't know. But since Polish was, so to say, his mother tongue, Schulz had no choice since a real writer will not write in a learned language, but in the language he knows from childhood." Nonsense, Mr. Singer. As I know Bruno Schulz personally, I can tell Mr. Singer right now that his mother tongue was Yiddish, and not Polish as Mr. Singer asserts. And he happened to write in Polish. Joseph Conrad's mother tongue was Polish, and he is a master of the English novel. Does Mr. Singer mean to tell us that Jewish choldren who learn Hebre3w or Yiddish at home cannot become real American, Polish, or French writers? Poor Saul Bellow.
Ed. note: The original interview is not reprinted here because of its length. It's strongly advised that interested readers go to their libraries and read a copy before forming fast opinions.
Mr. Harvey Shapiro
Dear Mr. Shapiro,
I am amazed that you allowed the publication of Issac Bashevis Singer's highly offensive views on Polish people and culture while claiming "lack of space" to avoid printing my "careful and interesting" rebuttal. Why then did you grant so much space to Singer's lies in the first place? Since you will not publish a substantive response that demonstrates singer's viciousness, and since The New York Times Book Review cannot find room to review any work which presents Polish people and culture in a positive light, like my own recent Polish Profiles, one is left to conclude that you accept him as the authority on Polish people and culture.
Both Mr. Singer and I were nourished by the thousand-year-old culture and spiritual achievements of a people and a countryside which we left before the Second World War. My own twenty-eight published books cover a much wider range of subject matter and are generally far less dependent upon Polish folklore than are Mr. Singer's for their inspiration. In fact, Singer's entire literary output consists of transmitting old stories which he had no part in originating to new audiences who may not be aware of his cultural borrowings. Therefore, it is especially hypocritical of Singer to slander his "roots," and it is shocking to discover that this racist position is in accordance with The New York Times Book Review editorial needs.
Ed. note: Of Antoni Gronowicz's An Orange Full of Dreams: "Star quality shines through. . ." The New York Times Book Review