Beyond Cactus and Cowshit


ROUNDUP:An Anthology of Texas Poets.

In 1963, an Austin poet wrote to the editor of the Riata, a literary journal at the University of Texas, insisting that for the sake of the magazine and for that of poetry, the editor should give up both editing and writing. That editor was Dave Oliphant, and we can be thankful he did not heed the advice. Instead, for thirty-five years Oliphant has remained a faithful and fearless supporter, publisher, and critic of poetry written by Texans, as well as being a disciplined poet himself. In 1973, he founded Prickly Pear Press, which has since published seventeen volumes of poetry by Texas writers and two recordings of Texas poets reading their work.

This spring, Oliphant and Prickly Pear Press published their third anthology of Texas poets – Roundup – conceived as a kind of seasonal gathering of the hands. It’s an ambitious, if moderately sized book, featuring one poem each by forty-five writers; each poet also contributes a prose piece elucidating the origins of the poem, the poet’s process and philosophy of composition, and the poet’s thoughts about being a poet in or from Texas. Unlike Oliphant’s two previous anthologies, which served to promote Texas poetry (first within the state and then in Latin America), Roundup is a celebratory volume, honoring Prickly Pear’s twenty-five years of publishing and a generation of poets that challenged itself to write at a level comparable to the best American poets.

Prickly Pear’s first two anthologies – The New Breed: An Anthology of Texas Poets (1973), and the bilingual Washing the Cow’s Skull/Lavando la calavera de vaca (1981) – were both excellent and important publications. In The New Breed, Oliphant, then thirty-two, brought together the work of twenty-five poets. “Unlike the Texas anthologies of the past,” Oliphant wrote, “this present volume is far-reaching in its implications; certainly it is not the usual cactus and cowshit collection associated with the Southwest. Its themes, its techniques are those which may be found in the work of the nation’s leading contemporary poets.” The New Breed did not in itself revolutionize poetry in Texas; that revolution had occurred elsewhere, in New York and in San Francisco, and came to Texas through the intellectual underground that connects all college towns. What The New Breed did accomplish was to introduce to each other Texas poets who had thought they were working alone and without peers. Poets discovered themselves part of a generation, which had quit writing rhymed quatrains in praise of bluebonnets and mockingbirds and instead imitated the open forms of William Carlos William, Charles Olson, and Allen Ginsberg and the Beats.

In Washing the Cow’s Skull/Lavando la calavera de vaca, Oliphant expanded the scope of his work, presenting poems translated into Spanish, insisting on the recognition of Texas as an ethnically diverse state, and including work of powerful poets he may have missed in the previous anthology. Of the twenty-four poets in Washing, sixteen had not appeared in The New Breed, indicating the extent of the poetic revolution in Texas. In less than ten years, Prickly Pear had anthologized the work of forty-one poets.

Since 1981, Dave Oliphant and Prickly Pear have focused on publishing high quality collections by poets he admires, supplemented by two recordings of Texas poets reading their work. The list is small but impressive, and the books always beautiful.

In the new anthology, Oliphant includes almost all the poets that Prickly Pear has published either in individual volumes, recordings, or anthologies, as well as five additional poets. The table of contents is a virtual “Who’s Who” of Texas poetry: William Barney, Charles Behlen, Susan Bright, Ray González, R.S. Gwynn, Walter McDonald, Vassar Miller, Harryette Mullen, Naomi Shihab Nye, Stan Rice, Tomás Rivera, Leon Stokesbury, Lorenzo Thomas, Tino Villanueva, R.G. Vliet, and thirty more. It is Oliphant’s most complete anthology to date.

One of the most interesting aspects of the volume is that of the forty-five poets included, two are not represented by poetry. It might seem an odd editorial choice, but Oliphant has always been loyal; so Roundup celebrates even those poets who have drifted away from poetry. Stephen Harrigan recounts his reasons for abandoning poetry, and because of his stature as a Texas writer indirectly raises questions about the vitality and viability of poetry in the state. “There was something about poetry – or rather something about me as a poet – that left me unfulfilled and suspicious of my own work. Looking back, I realize I was drawn to poetry in the first place because it offered protection…. But finally [I] had to admit to myself that I was speaking a private language.” I want to take these comments seriously, first because Harrigan’s prose is appealing and moving – he has had an illustrious, if interrupted, career as a novelist (a new novel about the Alamo is expected soon) and sustains a successful career as a journalist and screenwriter – and second because Harrigan was once the editor of Lucille, one of Austin’s most vibrant small press journals. While I too prefer his prose to his poetry, his decision to write prose because the reader “was entitled to a certain amount of real information” seems a bit too patly Platonic. However, Harrigan does raise an important point in considering this book: do poets have anything to say to us, and why would a self-respecting adult – in this age of O.J., Monica, and high-tech stock profits – bother to read, much less write the stuff?

In 1973, Oliphant became one of the first to publish West Texas poet Walter McDonald, and McDonald answers easily the question of why he continues to write poetry. “What keeps me going back to the desk day after day is a simple faith that words will show me the way.” And McDonald’s way is not one marked by what Harrigan would call protection: “When I write, I’m curious – eager and willing to find some splendid secrets, hoping to make some sense of what I find – maybe something I’ve needed all my life, maybe something so awful I wonder how I’ll ever deal with it.” For McDonald writing poetry is neither an act of autobiography nor self-display. “I lie a lot, in poems,” he says. “I am not there frank and undisguised.” McDonald’s poem confirms that real information can find itself in a poem. In “All the Old Songs,” the narrator speaks to his wife about their long years together:

I never believed we’d make it – the hours of skinned knees and pleading, diapers and teenage rage and fever in the middle of the night, and parents dying, and Saigon, the endless guilt of surviving.

McDonald writes with an intimate knowledge of pain that recalls in us our own individual pain, but he also writes with the hope that survivors find beneath their sorrow:

I know who I’ll find waiting at the gate, the same girl faithful to my arms as she was those nights in Austin when the world seemed like a jukebox …

Naomi Shihab Nye writes, “I will continue to believe in that place poems take us which belongs to us all, via every mixture of wisdom, ignorance, and regret, every tint of quietude, every passionate belief, every knob, raised salute and moment of pause.” Not only does this statement illustrate Nye’s courage as a poet, but also her courage as a human being, as a fellow citizen. For Nye’s poem deals with visiting Palestine with her Palestinian father, and her response to a man who tells her, “Until you speak Arabic – you will not understand pain.” Although stunned, halted by the man’s national and religious grief, Nye is alert – her humanity is vibrant, undulled by the mediocrity of our shallow and sensationalized guilts and achievements. She concludes, “but later in the slick street / hailed a taxi by shouting Pain! and it stopped / in every language and opened its doors.”

Several poets examine their roles in contemporary culture as citizens in general and poets in particular. One of the most telling is Robert J. Conley, a Cherokee.

When I go to the supermarket and buy some meat pre-cut and wrapped how do I apologize to the spirit of the animal whose meat I eat and where shall I build my fires?

His answer is “My poems are my fires. / oh gods forgive me all / the things I have failed / to do.” In his commentary, Conley writes about the Cherokee sense of community and the circularity of time, as opposed to the more Texas/Western sense of the individual and linearity of time. Directly following Conley is Dwight Fullingim’s poem, “Upon Looking into the Broadman Hymnal Again After All These Years,” another confrontation with the claims of culture and time.

From a childhood in wool pants, from the lap of a full-bosomed woman in white beads, I vanished many years ago – the way a photograph fades with time.…

[• • •]

It was a world in sweet accord, an alliance of intentions that can no longer be discerned not even amid the nostalgia aroused by thumbing through a notorious green hymnal.

This is what poetry can do – forgotten by many potential readers. By isolating emotions, scenes, and events, it can teach us who we are as human beings. In many ways, much contemporary poetry is essentially an act of intimacy. Is this what Harrigan felt he could not find a way to express? The work of McDonald, Nye, Conley, Fullingim, and many others in this book demonstrates that poetry can present honest ideas, shared memories, and real information in language not merely personal. Tino Villanueva’s “At the Holocaust Museum,” a poem in which the personal past and human past collide with the personal and national present, also comes to mind. In addition, the work of several poets illustrates the ways in which poets participate in a great dialogue of questions and answers, statements and restatements, contradictions and elucidations, revealing that the sources of their poetry, while often welling from their personal lives, are channeled, diverted, focused by their extensive knowledge of other writers. Among those mentioned in the commentaries are Robert Frost, Gary Snyder, William Goyen, Robert Creeley, Walter Benjamin, Euripides, and Gaston Bachelard.

This new anthology is not, however, without its limitations. As a group, the writers lack a certain daring in language and subject matter. They primarily concern themselves with natural and rural settings – if you want to read about shopping malls, city laundries, the U.T. Tower, or museums, you have to thumb through a good number of poems about a beach, a tree, a canyon rim, a river, a bird, a boar, a watermelon field, or a ranch. It is true that in “Acrophobia” James Hoggard, standing at the edge of a canyon, is confronting more than nature. And it is true that when Rebecca Gonzales describes “Workers in the Watermelon Fields,” she does not wax sentimental. But it is important to note the context of their metaphors, the roots of their symbols.

A second problem is that this volume is a strictly polite one – Oliphant has not selected any poets who insult or assault their readers. For instance, Susan Wood, in her powerful poem, “Laundry,” chooses not to lecture her readers on the plight of the homeless. Rather, she meditates on her own affluence, confronting her guilt, pride, and sense of good fortune: “Tomorrow, when I pick up the laundry / after psychoanalysis at three, I know everything will be / just the way I wanted it to be.” Similarly, Lorenzo Thomas’ forthright attack on materialism in “Dangerous Doubts” reminds readers of the potential meaninglessness of their lives, yet without imposing disturbing images of real possibility or meaning. “That you have 30,000 shots at immortality / But only one you dare not miss at being rich / Or at the least escape the nag of destitution.”

These are not faults with these particular poems. It’s a question of modulating voice, tone, and technique throughout the entire anthology. Oliphant’s general preference, as a poet and as an anthologizer, is the historical and meditative, and, to a lesser extent, the lyrical. So there is not much anger in these poems. There is dirt, but little mud. There is death, but little murder. There is loss, but little theft. The sins that these writers confront and confess to are sins of omission, not commission. For the most part, the writers speak without shouting.

I have to wonder to what extent the tendency toward a softening of sentiment and technique is the result of age. From 1973 to the present, Oliphant has not added younger poets to his anthologies. In the seventies his youngest poet was born in 1952; in this new anthology the youngest was born in 1954. And, of course, a poet’s emotions and interests change with time. Even a poet such as Seth Wade, who contributed avant-garde concrete poetry to The New Breed, includes here a darkly humorous bar story, “At the Time-Out,” with an A.A. moral. It’s a very strong poem, one of my favorites, but it is not a bold one.

One last thing that becomes apparent in the volume is a kind of creeping formalism. In the sixties, Oliphant explored free verse as it was written then (as in Donald Allen’s seminal anthology, The New American Poetry), but by the eighties, with the publication of the book-length poem Austin and Maria’s Poems, Oliphant was exploring the joy and discipline of set line and stanza lengths. In this book, his contribution is a poem of rhymed couplets. Similarly in Prickly Pear’s publications since The New Breed, there has been a growing taste for formalism – especially in the work of William Barney, William Burford, and Joseph Colin Murphey, poets older than Oliphant whom he has supported and championed. Though in the current volume there are only a few poems that would be strictly classified as formal verse, the free verse poems are written with an attention to regularity of line length and repetition of sound.

For all these reasons, the work of Harryette Mullen stands out. Mullen, the second youngest poet in the anthology, is loosely associated nationally with the group known as Language Poets. She describes her poem “Muse & Drudge,” which Oliphant excerpts, as being “inspired by the lives and lore of black women” – and her commentary in itself is a touching tribute to her mother in Fort Worth. Throughout the portions of the poem we have here, Mullen plays with language, dances with it, strips it down to its barest ideas, and reclothes it. It’s a wondrous verbal performance, bursting with a playful seriousness.

sun goes on shining while the debbil beats his wife blues played lefthanded topsy-turvy inside out

under the weather down by the sea a broke johnny walker mister meaner

bigger than a big man cirrus as a heart tack more power than a loco motive think your shit doesn’t stink

edge against a wall wearing your colors soulfully worn out stylishly distressed

Reading Mullen’s work today reminds me of my excitement when I first discovered the work of Charles Behlen and Leon Stokesbury in Oliphant’s earlier anthologies. While their poems in Roundup retain their usual high quality, Mullen’s work, which was also included in Washing the Cow’s Skull, is as new today as it was in the early eighties. She is the poet in this anthology who is breaking new ground, like all the poets in The New Breed in 1973.

While Roundup is a fitting celebration for Prickly Pear’s Texas “stable” of writers, it is also a cause for wonder that the press is still active. Prickly Pear was founded in the hey-day of small press activity – what some have called the mimeograph revolution. In part associated with radical student politics of the fifties, sixties, and early seventies, and in part associated with a centuries-long tradition of independent publishing,
mall presses were where many of the country’s best writers began publishing their work – Robert Bly (The Fifties Press) and Robert Creeley (Black Mountain Review) come immediately to mind. Prickly Pear was part of that revolution, and in 1977 Oliphant wrote a thorough description of the movement, “Small Presses in Texas,” for the Observer, naming eighteen Texas presses then publishing books of poetry. Today, as far as I know, only three of that group remain: Prickly Pear, Trilobite, and Wings.

Wings, originally edited by Joanie Whitebird, is now run by Bryce Milligan of San Antonio; Milligan says Wings survived simply because Whitebird wouldn’t let it die, but now Wings has an ambitious publishing schedule, including volumes by young Latina writers. The touch of Wings’ new volumes is somehow both delicate and stately – they are not expensive yet still have the feel of finely made books. (Wings also distributes the poetry back-stock of Latitudes Press and Place of Herons Press.) Another press founded shortly after Oliphant’s article, Susan Bright’s Plain View Press, still publishes many books a year (to date over 100 volumes), including much poetry. Cinco Puntos Press of El Paso publishes poetry and is also doing well.

Looking back on the difficult years since the seventies, Bryce Milligan recalls, “Ninety-five per cent of the presses active in the seventies fell apart during the hard years of the late seventies and early eighties. The hard times were a result of dwindling grant resources combined with the decline of the independent bookstores. But for a while, from about 1982 to 1994, the big chains in Texas were Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, and neither one ever stocked small press titles with any regularity.” The situation may be a bit more hopeful now; recognizing the void left by the demise of many independent bookstores, Barnes and Noble and Borders Books are both stocking small press titles.

Oliphant has some ideas why Prickly Pear is among the survivors. “Part of the reason is that I had a program. Many presses had a particular focus; some were like vanity presses. My focus was publishing the work of other people and publishing high quality writing. Other presses were interested in offbeat, underground, protest kind of work, with one particular point of view or slant. I presented quality literature, major Texas poets, and promoted groups or individuals that do the very best of Texas writing. Many other presses’ aims were more limited. They did chapbooks, for instance. I very quickly moved to bigger books and anthologies. Also, I put more money into the press; in that way people took the press more seriously. With quality writing and printing, I was able to win grant money and [the attention of] a few individuals who have supported the press.” Bryce Milligan agrees. “Oliphant created books that needed to be created, and thereby made a great contribution to the state of Texas letters.” And he adds, “Dave published several important titles by individual authors, but his anthologies were crucial to establishing [and] identifying a recognizably Texan literary landscape.”

Add to Oliphant’s accomplishments as poet, anthologist, and publisher, those of a critic of Texas poetry, including a volume of essays, On a High Horse: Views Mostly of Latin American and Texas Poetry, and of Texas Jazz. In this remarkable range he stands virtually alone in the history of Texas literature; in each speciality, others may have accomplished more, but few have contributed as broadly. For some reason Oliphant has not received the credit he is due as a dedicated critic, publisher, and poet – yet in fifty years it may turn out, of all the critic-scholar-writers of Texas literature, Dave Oliphant will be the one who is read. In some ways, he is the James Laughlin (New Directions) and the Lawrence Ferlinghetti (City Lights Books) of Texas.

As Prickly Pear Press enters its twenty-sixth year, Dave Oliphant turns sixty. As his excellent new anthology confirms, Oliphant has contributed significantly to the development of poetry in Texas, and he is not slowing down. He has in some ways been a maverick, making his own way; but in other ways he has been valiantly communal – celebrating and supporting poets in a state that offers little support. Since he likes these Texian metaphors, I’ll put it this way: it’s time we tipped our hats to Dave Oliphant. He’s a good hand to ride the trail with.

Lyman Grant is associate professor of English at Austin Community College. His poetry most recently appeared in Feeding the Crow and Best Texas Writing I.