Haight Ashbury Literary Journal

Historical Essay

by Joanne Hotchkiss


Haight Ashbury Literary Journal cover

The Haight Ashbury Literary Journal was conceived in the fall of 1979 by Clifford McIntire, a poet-writer, ex-convict, ex-junkie combat veteran of Korea. Cliff and I (also a poet) were living, at the time, on the top floor of a renovated Victorian at the corner of Shrader and Oak St. in San Francisco. The building had been vacant for nine years after hippies cut holes in walls for doors, made fires in the middle of rooms for heat and painted the cockroaches with dayglo paint so that they could watch them in the dark. When we moved in, the renovated building had wall to wall carpets, draperies and dishwashers.

We had a huge living room, with dormer windows, a witch's hat cupola and a wonderful ocean breeze and Cliff decided to use the space to feed the poets of San Francisco.

He began a series of Poetry Reading dinners as he loved to cook and once a month, poets gathered for quiche, pizza or spaghetti and to read their work. One night with 35 poets sitting around our living room, mostly on the floor, Cliff held up a blank stock certificate he'd gotten from the financial district that morning.

"We are going to have the Haight Ashbury Literary Quarterly," he announced and whoever buys a $25 share will get 250 copies of the new Journal at 10¢ a piece. The price will be 75¢ so that you can make 65¢ a copy.

"Who wants to buy a share?" Hands went up all around the room. I was amazed and grabbed a notebook and began writing down the names and numbers of shares people wanted and quickly realized that the cost of printing the first issue of the new magazine was covered that very first night.

John Meehan who had begun to organize the Haight Ashbury Soup Kitchen, was Cliff's best friend and also a poet, ex-convict, ex-junkie who had successfully turned his life around with the help of the Rebound Program for prisoners returning to school. John was a director of the Rebound Program at San Francisco State at the time. He had also been helping us run a Poetry Reading Series at the Grand Piano Cafe on Haight Street. It was from that reading series and the poetry dinners that we collected the first submission to the new Haight Ashbury Literary Quarterly.

John was a natural entrepreneur and while organizing and staring the Haight Ashbury Soup Kitchen which he still runs, be helped us launch the Haight Ashbury Literary Journal as a contributor, an editor and as a fund raiser. He organized publicity events including a reading at San Francisco State University which included Angela Davis and several people involved in teaching poetry in the prisons.

Cliff arranged a meeting with Haight Ashbury newspaper for support and advice and a young woman named Claudia Chase working with the newspaper asked to join our editorial staff. She was the only editor among us who had any experience in publishing.

When Cliff originally announced the Journal that first night at his poetry dinner, he asked if anyone wanted to help. Only Noni Howard responded, a woman prominent in the world of gay and lesbian activism. Later I asked Laura Beausoleil, a talented writer and poet who lived in the Haight if she would be our prose editor and she agreed. So we were six editors, two Virgos, two Libras, and two Capricorns an astrologically excellent combination for an editorial staff. We were also an extremely diverse group, with two ex-convicts and myself who had formerly been a policewoman and a young Republican while married and living in Seattle. Laura was raised in Hawaii and Noni was Canadian lesbian and Claudia was very young Jewish New Yorker.

At our first editorial meeting we sat in a circle on the floor of our living room with a great pile of submissions in the middle. If we liked a poem we were to give it an x, if we didn't a O. As we began reading and marking and passing the poems around the circle, I was shocked by the types of poems John and Cliff were Xing. I would never publish such poems, I thought but it was my first lesson in widening my views of what other people call good poetry.

Our meetings were tumultuous. There were endless arguments over the choices of poems and so much push and pull that only the very best poems survived the process. I realized later that our diversity and differences in themselves were creating a tight manuscript.

The Haight Ashbury district was an ideal neighborhood in the late 70's and early 80's. Rents were still affordable. There was an abundance of cheap, good cafes and restaurants. Musicians, painters, writers and poets abounded and there were many events involving neighborhood artists.

Also the neighborhood merchants were very supportive of the arts. When Claudia insisted we use a professional typesetter, she suggested I try selling ads on Haight Street to pay for it, so I did and was amazed to discover that of the first 6 places I tried, I got two checks in hand, three promises and only one refusal.

I had originally been a very reluctant participant in this new venture of Cliff's, because he had a serious drinking problem and usually what he thought up for us to do, I did. But once I saw our work in hand, our months of argument and decisions, collecting money mailing back manuscripts etc. transformed into a neat arrangement of printed poetry, it pleased me immensely.

Naively, we had printed 8,00 copies of the first issue. John Meehan, who bought 4 shares or 1,000 copies planned to make his fortune, I think. The first day he went to a cafe on 24th St. got up on a table and began reading poetry and was promptly kicked out. I don't think he ever did sell a copy.

Distribution was our next problem. I had had the idea we could sell the H.A.L.J. on the street as the Berkeley Barb had been. I had been charmed one rainy, winter day by a young man selling the Barb in the Financial District. "Come spring," he had said, "You too can sell the Berkeley Barb." A friend of mine sold 50 copies of our new Journal a day for ten days and refused to ever sell again after that. However I was thrilled that 500 copies of our new Journal had been distributed in ten days. Also two young men from New York who wanted to help us out sold 120 copies at various BART Stations in a couple of days downtown, but selling poetry on the street is a hard sell. I have found from my own experience, that the only times I would sell was when I was flat broke and really wanted a glass of wine and bowl of soup.

Four months after the first issue came out, when we had neither enough money nor enough good poems to do the next issue, Claudia suggested we just wait until we had what we needed, so from that point we were no longer the Haight Ashbury Literary Quarterly, but the Haight Ashbury Literary Journal.

Our second issue came out in November of 1980 and by then there were many problems. Cliff's drinking from the moment the first issue came out went downhill very quickly. I really think success was too upsetting for him.

Claudia got stoned with the typesetter the night they were supposed to do the proofreading with the layout. I did my best to correct what I could, but our appointment with the printer was that morning so there were many mistakes in the second issue. Nevertheless, Eugene Ruggles, an excellent poet was on the cover. We had hired a graphic artist to design a good format and logo and we had 24 pages instead of 16. Naively, we still published 4,000 copies. That issue did very well at City Lights bookstore. We managed to get most of the bookstores on Haight Street to carry it and found a few others as well.

Distribution however was still a problem. The small press distributors did not want to carry a newspaper formatted publication. Then in early 1981, Cliff's drinking was finally too much for me and I moved to Tam Valley, but very quickly involved myself in an even worse relationship, and by fall was living in a van in Woodacre calling typesetters, printers and managing the H.A.L.J. business from pay phones and the back of the van.

I had hoped the other editors would take over in my absence, but I finally realized if I didn't do it, it wouldn't happen and I felt obligated to go ahead with the third issue no matter what, as a good friend and excellent poet, Lorna D. Cervantes, had agreed to be on the cover and had given us poems of many of her friends.

We had only $300 for our third issue and since our cost had been $1,000 for printing the second issue, I felt defeated, but a man came to our meeting who offered to do the typesetting free, and gave us the name of a printer who would print the issue for $300.

It seemed a minor miracle to me at the time. He also offered to pay for an extra 1,000 copies as he was buying up all the old newspaper boxes used by Lovelights (a poetry journal which used a pornographic cover to sell itself in newspaper boxes all over the city until the Women's movement in the early seventies put it out of business).

So I thought we had solved our distribution problems. However, the man who offered so much help, as soon as the third issue was printed started his own magazine and took three of our editors with him: Claudia, Laura and Noni. They were sure the H.A.L.J. could not survive Cliff's severe drinking.

What everyone did not seem to realize, including myself, was that I was really the one in charge. John Meehan had his Soup Kitchen operating by then and no longer had time for the H.A.L.J., and even Cliff handed me a formal letter of resignation because we had lost our last opportunity for distribution.

I was left alone with the H.A.L.J. But after the third issue came out in the fall of 1981, I liked it too much not to continue. Cliff however arranged a series of readings in the public libraries in the summer of 1982. Six readings in branch libraries and four at the main branch downtown. We received $25 a reading, giving us $250 toward our fourth issue.

Meanwhile, I had moved back to Oak street a few blocks down from Cliff. I tried to find new editors, and invited a few people to a meeting, but they just sat around Xing each others' poems, and their only real interest seemed to be in seeing themselves published.

I did the fourth issue on my own with a little help here and there in 1983, and then Cliff died. This was a shock I was completely unprepared for. I loved him deeply and did not understand the depth of my feeling and connection to him until it was too late. Conyus, a poet and former editor of Black Scholar magazine, who lived in the Haight, introduced me to a young woman from NY, Ann Koshel, who wanted nothing more in life at that time than to edit a poetry journal. She carried me through that fall, supporting me, mailing out fliers to her fellow students from Naropa from the summer before for manuscripts and located a graphic artist friend.

She insisted we have the fifth issue complete by Valentine's Day 1984. Otherwise she was in danger of losing her boyfriend. And we did it. She had a garage sale of Cliff's old stuff (and he was a pack rat) to raise money for his issue. He had wanted to be featured on the cover—and was, sadly, after his death.

There was an ordinance against garage sales without permits at that time, and at the end of our sale, the police turned up and we all grabbed up what we could and went running off down the street. It seemed somehow an appropriate end to Cliff's money-raising garage sale for his issue of the Journal.

By then we had attracted a black man named Darrell Gauff as an editor. Laura Beausoleil had joined us again, and Alice Rogoff, who is still an editor, started working with me. Also Gwen Carman, a black woman, suggested we feature women of color on our next issue. Conyus told me of a reading Opal Palmer and Devorah Major were giving at the Western Addition Library. So Laura and I went with Sue Kubley. We liked the poetry very much, and Sue photographed Opal and Devorah for our next cover.

At that point we had three black editors at once. Darrell would go around to all the poetry readings in the city and bring back manuscripts and he insisted I open my ears and my mind to third world lingo and voice.

All the back issues were in a rather large bathroom where I lived on Oak Street, but had not room for the upcoming issue featuring Opal and Devorah. So I went to the Rainbow Gathering in Northern California with a friend. I arrived on the last day of the Gathering and got a ride up a long mountain road in a truck just as people were leaving, going home to Texas and Minneapolis and New Hampshire. I gave away about a thousand copies of back issues and everyone seemed happy to receive copies of the Haight Ashbury Literary Journal free. I felt it was an excellent nationwide distribution.

Noni Howard and Laura Beausoleil were going to do the 7th issue themselves and chose Meryl Woo as the cover poet, until Laura became involved with a guy I was involved with and the emotional upheaval for me made it impossible to be with her. So I took the issue back and Alice, Darrell, Gwen and myself completed that issue. I am indebted to Noni however for choosing Meryl as the cover poet. Her poetry set a tone that became almost a chorus of poems of ancestry and lives of the great ethnic diversity that makes this country sing. It was a rich issue and one of my favorites.

Our distribution problem was finally solved via the Haight Ashbury Soup Kitchen. John Meehan was holding poetry readings there Fridays after lunch. Poets such as Bob Kaufman, Gene Ruggles, Jack Michelene and others were eating there. When a new issue of the Journal came out, John would announce me and I would read some poems and then sit at a card table by the door and sign up anyone who wanted to sell the Journal on the street. I did my best to give the sellers a good deal. A few people were good at selling and came back for more. One couple would take fifty copies of a new issue out to S.F. State and sell out each time.

Then William Birdwood or Bird turned up, who is himself a poet, lived in his van and was talented selling and interested enough to give impromptu readings on the street.

"I'm going to sell you out girl!" he'd say to me and in fact, he did. He sold out nearly all of our back issues and to this day sells the Inaugural issue for $5.00, so that I am finally grateful we were naive enough to publish 8,000 copies. After years of practice he has become so adept, he now sells 1,000 copies a month, which is a living or close to it, since he keeps $1.50 of the $2.00 price and gets bonus copies for every ten he sells.

For him we have reprinted two back issues and plan to do more and for him we have to publish at least 3,000 copies, sometimes 4,000 of a new issue. Three years ago he went to Washington DC. during the election campaign to sell the Journal and then on to NY. and Boston, where he sells in Harvard Square.

After our 8th issue featuring the prison poet, Pancho Aguilla, I moved out of the city. A new editor joined us at that time, Lena Diethelm. We did a woman's issue and followed it with a love and erotic issue, at Lena's insistence. She also insisted that we all have an equal say in all decisions. I had taken the liberty while I was floundering around with various editors, of adding or taking out poems, usually according to how they fit in with the other poems. But Lena objected to this. We were to be a collective and since that was the way we had started, I agreed.

That fall as the issue was nearing publication, I was suffering from asthma so badly I could not make it to the city for meetings. Will Walker had joined us by then and I had to let Will, Alice and Lena take over. I wondered if they would. After my experience with the third issue when I hoped the others would take over and they didn't I was afraid this might be the end of the H.A.L.J., but there was nothing I could do about it. However they did do it and very well too. That issue, the Bill Shields issue of the Vietnam veteran sold 100 copies at City Lights Bookstore and was the first issue we later reprinted. It was one of our best .

From that point Alice Rogoff took on more and more of the editorial responsibilities. She enjoyed writing letters to the poets, something I never did, and her letter writing developed a continuity of poets continuing to send us their work and from that we eventually featured two of the poets. Edgar Silex, a Native American and Linwood Ross, a gifted, musical voice from the ghettoes of New York. Alice was also gifted in grant writing, and won three Zellerbach Grants for us, the last of which was for an anthology we published in January 1996, This Far Together.

Will Walker is our liaison with Bird, who is presently back selling $40 to $60 dollars worth of journals a day on Haight Street. He is a miracle of distribution, and because tourists come regularly to Haight Street, the Journal is carried off all over the country and all over the world as well. Bird is pictured on the cover of our anthology.

Alice also has managed to find many more bookstores to carry the Journal and Will has managed to help us clean up our punctuation and spelling (weak points of mine), and gives us a steadying balance. Just the three of us have been editors for the past five years, and until we tried to do an anthology of 18 issues this year, we had gotten the Journal on a very smooth course.

But the H.A.L.J. from the beginning to this day has always been a happening supported by a crazy, bohemian neighborhood with a bizarre history of its own. In the mid sixties before I met Cliff, when flower children were everywhere in the Haight, I was walking down Haight Street one evening.

"Want to buy a poem?" a voice called from a dark doorstep and I stopped. Three young hippies sat on the steps holding up poems they had written on pieces of paper. So I bought some.

I thought of Li Po writing poems and throwing them into a stream. The endless flow of poems that come in the mail year after year is another ongoing stream. Often I've wondered how it would ever stop, but I could never figure that out, and have just gone along with the constant flow.

Because we have never had deadlines, we have never felt pushed, and perhaps that has helped allow us to continue. We are about to publish our twentieth issue, and perhaps we will just keep going on.


Haight Ashbury Literary Journal anthology, 1995

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