Empty Bowl Redux


Text of a talk given to Jefferson County Historical Society, Port Townsend, WA, on October 7, 2016, for their History of Small Press Publishers in Port Townsend Exhibit.

In the winter of 2000, Jack Estes of Pleasure Boat Studio and Charles Potts of The Temple, a magazine in Walla Walla, asked for a written history of Empty Bowl press. I spent that winter working on an essay giving the publishing history of most of the books I had anything to do with while I was part of Empty Bowl, from 1975 to around 1985. It’s a more objective history than what you’ll hear tonight. Tonight I’m more interested in talking about Empty Bowl as the focus of a history of ideas, and a collection of people who just happened to run into one another at a time in their lives when a similar passion for writing and art happened to be guiding them all, enough that they were moved to collaborate in editing, book design, fundraising, and distribution. It was that random, that all of us who worked together off and on for over a decade, found we could make books to capture those ideas and those passions. The late Robert Gordon who lived in Port Townsend during that period and who published in at least one of The Dalmo’ma anthologies, after he read that essay told me I made Empty Bowl sound like the most famous publishing house nobody ever heard of.

But I recommend it to you, for the “fun facts” and for some stories about the press. It’s in my book, Way Out There –which I have here—and will happily sell to you—but the essay, “Running on Empty,” is also online at the Pleasure Boat Studio website.

Tonight, I want to begin by saying a few words about a poem by Robert Sund, even though Robert didn’t publish with Empty Bowl until our third issue of Dalmo’ma. Robert was a strong influence and supporter of the work we were doing right from the very beginning in 1976. He had a lot of praise for the hand-made quality of the first issue of Dalmo’ma, and its advocacy for “place” in the wilderness and rural orientation of the poems we published. Empty Bowl also shared his care for indigenous myths and poems related to Northwest tribes, as well as his interest in writing about physical labor, not so much working to earn a paycheck as the love of craft and care in making real things, as well as poems.

But—I’ve often been impressed and frankly puzzled to the point of being disturbed by the ending of Robert’s poem “Spring in Ish River.” Here’s the poem:

I can hear the two robins
crying from an alder across the creek.
Above me, in the vine maple, I see the nest.
I reach up and feel the four eggs lying lightly
among soft feathers.
I lift one egg out, lower my arm,
slowly, and
stand still.
Appalled, I see
the true shape of my hand.

That last line might have passed me by without my noticing it but for that word “appalled.” A word that connotes something bordering on disgust, even horror. And how can just one of the near limitless shapes a hand can get itself into be “true”?

The poem gets to its inescapable judgement by seeing many things at once. This shock and horror is the epiphany at an understanding of man’s place on earth, our ‘state of nature.’ What the hand is doing here, for instance, has almost nothing whatsoever to do with Sund’s frequent descriptions of work taking place, especially in his book Bunch Grass, and is almost the opposite, it would seem, from the judgement William Carlos Williams made in his poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”: “So much depends.” But we’re not in farm country in this poem, we’re in the Sacred Grove. We’re in that other part of literature the Pastoral tradition has kept alive since singing began. It’s both what we’ve lost and what’s left. That hand is our hand, the hand of the invader, the aggressor, the colonizer’s hand and at the same time the devotee’s hand, the admirer’s, the lover’s. The shape of the hand is the shape of the Poet’s receptivity against the robin’s egg blue cupped there, the realization in holding nature, or experiencing its passing, he or she can’t separate from the real world. You can’t take hold of a still warm robin’s egg and step back.

Here’s Robert’s poem from The Dalmo’ma Anthology, another bird “Poem to the Parrot from Africa,”

Sultry this afternoon in Seattle, hot
Cloudless days, not used to it—
Downtown the businessmen’s gills are beating
Everywhere the businessmen’s gills are beating—
They try to hide it in the bravado of ice cubes and gin
But you go back and forth on your limb
your feet clutching
like an old lady’s hands
you are beautiful
cool blue soft grey feathers
breast stippled
your beak is a blue stone
drying in river sand…
Around your ryes, like a mask,
Tiny white feathers flow together
perfect as lace.
Your eyes are
black iris
in yellow opal,
They look not real—
only the dusty blue eyelid (silk fringes
no hand will weave)
moves, giving away your life.
Be careful!
You are the Negro.
You are roast beef with
red tailfeathers
You are the chicken no one will eat,
You breathe air dead with puritan goodness
You were given—from parents traveling in Africa—as a present—
They paid postage
You endured the airplane, and the freight car
and the bus, and now
the cars that go by on Newton Street
Last week there were two of you.
Overnight at the Vet’s , too late, your friend
died, and went up in smoke over
Ballard.

II
When I look at our feet again
I see they are roots covered with snakeskin
And up through your throat, from your breast comes
a sound like dry crumpling paper,
And then
you sneeze—
a soft babylike sneeze!—and I am
lost in your feathers
I am the father who cannot
reach for his children.

III
Today you’re in the house next door,
in the hallway—
The house you came from is being fumigated.
Beside a vase of daisies and a poem of lost love,
you say something, voice
creaky
like a car window
Watch out!
There are men here who would make
dice out of your eyes,
They would
peel your toes to make gloves.
And the people with aluminum ears will come
to cluck you blind.
Some will even call you “Crazy Horse”
and cheat you and lie to you
then kill you
in secret—
You Prince of the
Sioux Nation!
You bright shoe lost on the stair way!
You are like a certificate that bleeds,
like a longing confessed too late in life,
and in Windermere, in the “Highlands of Seattle
your face
is punched out the shape of a monthly bill—
once a month you arrive in the mail…
You are dollars, you remind them of
“how generous” they are, “how
thoughtful.”
You are sitting on a limb, in your cage in the hallway
How can I
paint the colors of your cage?
What shall I say to
your mistress
who is kind…

Empty Bowl was sometimes characterized, back in the eighties, as a publisher of quote unquote political poetry, especially with the publication of the Dalmo’ma anthology, in 1982, a double issue which addressed head-on the arrival of the Trident nuclear weapons system through Admiralty Bay and into Hood Canal. But lately I’ve understood that “political poetry” isn’t the right term for what we were doing. Political Poetry gets fixated on the temporal, or on particular news items rather than trying to make such events exemplify something bigger. This is why the fundamental interest, our editorial decisions, were derived from the Pastoral tradition, so-called Nature poetry, the rural/wilderness school: what seems more eternal or changeless is exemplified there.

In other words, if poetry is meant to seek truth, as an editor I felt I had to find a way to see through or with or past the circumstances or the “referentials” of the poem, and find “the holes,” those insights the poem lets seep into my consciousness or doesn’t— perhaps due to the author’s inattentiveness or obfuscation, or my own attempt to block by insisting on the importance of such details that present oversimplified examples of something like “unfairness,” for instance, or irony.

The notion of Robert’s affect (rather than his influence so much) on the writing or perspectives of rural and wilderness poets is at the same time the connective between the mainstream schools and the Outsider stance. If the continuity of Western Literature can be seen to have developed in three traditions: Tragedy, Comedy and the Pastoral, whatever movement or group of writers can be called Outsiders belong in this third tradition as much as Greek goatherds who complained about expanding the city walls, and the ruin of pasture lands. The Beats are the obvious example of Outsider poets and novelists, not to mention that their writing exerted a strong influence on most of us editors of Empty Bowl: Snyder, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Whalen, we talked about and recommended their work all the time, as well as the novels of Paul Bowles and the poetry and essays of Kenneth Rexroth, not because they were Outsiders, but because they were writing what we happened to want to read. Empty Bowl represented an Outsider approach to literature in two particular ways: the typical one of the less-than-acceptable voice, or the not so appealing subject matter. And the other way was in writing strictly about the Outside, even if sometimes being accused of not giving enough attention or giving a slant or skewed attention to the “heart,” the inner life. Or being too ‘male.’ You can find an essay about this very topic in the Dalmo’ma anthology by Sharon Doubiago: “Where is the Female on the Bearshit Trail?” And the fifth anthology, Digging for Roots, took the same approach to women Outsider writing.

Just as those who as part of the Mainstream system arising in the 70s in MFA and PHD programs around the country were collaborators in establishing a shared aesthetic reinforced by magazine and book publishers, we were also collaborators writing from a rural perspective and applying basic notions like the alienation from the constant speed and spread of civilized development and an appreciation of the “Sacred Grove,” or a nostalgia for the Old Ways that we never disavowed—we collaborated accordingly.

I know I’m using this term “The Sacred Grove” an awful lot. I want to give you an example of how I think it enters our writing by way of a very early influence. I think most of us who were involved with Empty Bowl were very close readers of the work of Gary Snyder. Snyder also was very encouraging of the work we were doing, although the first poem of his we published wasn’t until 1986 in Working the Woods Working the Sea, edited by Finn Wilcox and Jerry Gorsline. That was the “Smokey the Bear Sutra.” But I want to read a stanza where Snyder seems to be showing what happened to the Sacred Grove. It’s from his early book, Myths & Texts, published in 1960 by Totem Press, but it reappeared in 2008, in the revised Working the Woods Working the Sea.

10
A ghost logger wanders a shadow
In the early evening, boots squeak
With the cicada, the fleas
Nest warm in his blanket-roll
Berrybrambles catch at the staged pants
He stumbles up the rotted puncheon road
There is a logging camp
Somewhere in there among the alders
Berries and high rotting stumps
Bindlestiff with a wooden bowl
(The poor bastards at Nemi in the same boat)
What old Seattle skidroad did he walk from
Fifty years too late, and all his
money spent?

“The poor bastards at Nemi in the same boat.” That Latin word, nemus, means "holy wood". The village of Nemi had a sacred grove, the site of one of the most famous Roman cults and temples. Snyder notices people there had the same fate as the Ghost Logger, the same reluctance to give up what’s been taken away by the course of so-called Progress. The Ghost Logger has always seemed to me to have come back to the contradictions: love of the wild in the midst of a resource colony. In the 70s and 80s that was exactly the struggle Empty Bowl was attempting to talk about, the conflicting loves of place and industry in the Northwest and specifically on the Olympic Peninsula. The ancient Pastoral tradition now commonly called Nature poetry includes what we were doing in Empty Bowl by looking more objectively at wilderness. In my student days I thought of the Pastoral as a kind of celebration of nature, the beauty and peace of living off the land, but I think in the twentieth century particularly, and even earlier harking back to the Romantics warning the advent of the Industrial age, the Pastoral is the tradition that lays claim to our need to care for and our responsibility to care for place, and that early in the twentieth century—with William Carlos Williams in Paterson, and Frost in poems like Home Burial and the Hired Hand, and even more adamantly in all of Jeffers—and through Rexroth and Snyder’s warnings about creeping development of civilized greed and populations exploding beyond sustainability—these poets were models for Empty Bowl and like them our work foreshadowed the single most important issue of our lifetime, climate change.

Gary Snyder gave a benefit reading for Empty Bowl at the Ace of Cups Coffee House on an evening while he was on the summer staff at Centrum’s Port Townsend Writers Conference in 1977. In addition to reading his own poems to a standing-room only crowd in that very intimate setting, he elucidated the etymology of the word Dalmo’ma. He also noted the irony of a Pacific Northwest poetry publication choosing a Northern California Pit River Indian name and talked a little about the history of the Pit River tribe, which was officially recognized in 1976, coincidentally the year Dalmo’ma came out. I found the name in a song quoted by the anthropologist and fiction writer, Jaime de Angulo in Indians in Overalls. At Dalmo'ma near the spring I dig for wild turnips At Dalmo'ma in the evening I turn up but rotten ones. Snyder mentions it in a review of Indians in Overalls as a village occupied by wolves.

In the 70s, a number of us were basing what we were doing on indigenous stories and myths, but even then we suspected it might be unsuitable to incorporate native culture into that of descendants of white Europeans. Not, I think, to arrogantly appropriate or even to pretend we were making amends, but we thought it beneficial to all of us to try to capture our own interpretations of stories that were in the atmosphere of Northwest and West coast poetry. Snyder used some, Barry Lopez did, but one of my favorites was "Song of Ishi," a poem cycle by Mike O'Connor published in 1976 in the first Dalmo'ma, and included in Mike’s book The Basin.

We felt we were part of a movement that thought it fitting to include and re-envision native myths in our own work. Why was that? Maybe because the myths left to young white guys back then looked so bleak by comparison that we ignored stories handed down (till much later) from our grandparents and from our various strands of white culture. Empty Bowl took native people and their stories, legends and myths as models for the kind of attitudes we wanted to foster through our own work, while at the same time encouraging ourselves to help preserve those cultures that now we see flourishing in new ways around the country. It was a small aspect of a process called “reinhabitation.” And now in the same way many of us support those tribes who show up at Standing Rock in North Dakota and are called Protectors or we might applaud movements in several states that are trying to institute Indigenous People’s Day. From the first Dalmo’ma to the last we included and evolved with indigenous literature and attitudes just as we have incorporated the influence of Chinese poetry and Zen texts brought to us by Mike O’Connor and by Red Pine’s translations, as we looked for order, ritual, and value in protecting place through collaborative cultures.

Besides the influence and encouragement of writers like Gary Snyder and Robert Sund, the sense that we were collaborating within a movement was strong in all of us as poets and as editor/publishers, but it was a movement that wasn’t only literary. It affected our views on economy, ethics, the environment, and philosophy. There was a difference from those academic poets whose aesthetic was adopted from the mainstream. Our aesthetic had been hammered out individually before evolving as a group, even though we’d been reading some of the same poets, were interested in a similar way of life. We each brought our own version of this Outsider aesthetic, and unlike more cerebral poets, we brought it from the Outside.

Robert Sund, as a former student of Roethke, and Snyder as a celebrated and renowned author and prize winner, were each our connective links to the Mainstream. Unlike other students of Roethke, Robert was a kind of refugee from the spotlight and the academic world, and so was Snyder. Bunch Grass, for an example, is unlike other books by Sund’s contemporaries. The famous poets who were also Roethke’s students and who used the outside world but were not in a similar sense “Outsiders “were James Wright, William Stafford, Carolyn Kizer, and the list goes on of poets who took Roethke’s classes and later became academics themselves. Few of whom sought out that “hermetic” life that fostered experience more than achievement.

William Stafford sent two poems for the first issue of Dalmo’ma and recommended his son, Kim Stafford be included in the second Dalmo’ma. Their poems are excellent examples of the kind of long-term investment in treating place as an idea, and a kind of intellectual reinhabitaion.
On the other hand, John Haines once wrote,

“On the evidence of my own experience, I believe that one of the most important metaphors of our time is the journey out of wilderness into culture, into the forms of our complicated and divided age, with its intense confusion and deceptions. The eventual disintegration of these cultural forms returns us once more to the wilderness. This journey can be seen both as fall and reconciliation. And place, once again, means actual place, but also a state of mind, a consciousness. Once that place is established, we carry it with us, as we do our sense of selves.”

(William Scott Hanna, In Search of The Self, In Search of The Land: Toward a Contemporary American Poetics of Place, a dissertation, 2012)

Haines’ poems in Dalmo’ma, issue #2, are steeped in stone hard existential honesty, without reliance on hope. They make an interesting contrast to Kim Stafford’s more idealized poem. His “Living Basket House” imagines a literal reinhabitation, while Haines, the famous and longtime Alaskan homesteader, depicted a somewhat harsher reality in number VIII of his series “Forest Without Leaves.”

William Stafford, when asked how the Pacific Northwest affected his writing, denied much influence:

“Many writers in a place that is as definite a region as the Northwest feel that it is very much a part of their writing. I’m not too sure of that about me. . . . [My] attitude is this: where you live is not crucial, but how you feel about where you live is crucial. Since I live in the Northwest, yes, I do write about the Northwest in the sense that place names get in my poems, but as for anything mystical, it hasn’t registered on me. . . . I can say without any problem that the language [not the place] is what I live in when I write. I don’t want to say I’m not impressed by scenery; it registers. I know some writers who apparently live on it; they need a lot of scenery. It’s kind of a distraction to me….It’s a pleasant thought, but the idea that the style is rooted to the landscape just sounds sort of quaint to me.” “If Theodore Roethke hadn’t moved to Seattle, the scene would be the same, but the literary scene wouldn’t be the same.”
(Reading the Region: Northwest Schools of Literature)

One thing he seems to be advocating is that good writing in and about the Northwest in the end has perhaps stemmed less from the place than from the individuals—both native-born and newcomers—who have inhabited it. Yet, we were a group of editors, who each brought issues we cared about to the table, so to speak. And we cared because we were involved in this place. So, while I find Mr. Stafford’s statement about language to be true and that the people one associates with helps to create one’s feeling about a place, I think what set all of us off at a particular time in our lives, and in the history of our country, post-Vietnam, was the pure synchronicity of our accidental meetings here, where Admiralty Bay and the Strait of Juan de Fuca merge, at the tip of the Quimper and along the ridges and outcroppings of the Olympics.

In thinking about Empty Bowl, and the people involved, it’s significant to reflect that, although I, as an escapee from Boston, edited issues one and two of Dalmo’ma, by 1982, those included among the editors and board members were from all over the United States. Tim McNulty, Jerry Gorsline and I were New Englanders, while Finn Wilcox and Mike O’Connor are from the Pacific Northwest. Tom Jay and Sharon Doubiago started out in California, and support and encouragement came from the publishers of Copper Canyon Press, Sam Hamill, originally from Utah, and Tree Swenson from Washington, and Scott Walker of Graywolf Press from Portland, I think. Not to mention encouragement from the poet-novelists, Bill Ransom of Washington and Jim Heynen of Minnesota. Many of the people I just listed published collections or chapbooks of their own poetry with Empty Bowl Press.

In addition, the beginnings of Empty Bowl, the birthplace if you will—like a manger in Bethlehem, was an army tent in the Olympic Mountains on a clearcut where Bob Blair, who’d recently moved here from the Southwest, and I hatched out a plan to begin a small, hand-made magazine about the size of Poetry or Poetry Northwest, that would come out once or twice a year and feature work by poets who were writing strictly about the mountainous, sea-going Pacific Northwest. My own goal was to be small and very local. To publish a magazine, not anthologies. And to edit each issue thematically. The end page of Dalmo’ma 2 in 1978, for instance, was a call for submissions of poems, essays and stories so specific to where we lived, they would be set in, and describe and witness only what we could discover in the same single watershed.

But life got in the way, and maybe because it was dormant for four years The Dalmo’ma Anthology of 1982 appeared as a collection of so many issues we were chastised by the Seattle P.I. The reviewer noted, “Every major cause is addressed—and the greater its popularity, the greater its prominence—with the effect, in the end, both of insincerity and tokenism.” It took me a while to get over what I thought of as outrage, but now, older and wiser, I can see that The Dalmo’ma Anthology would have been better had it been three or four issues of a magazine rather than an all-inclusive anthology. But as I said, while dalmo’ma lay dormant many concerns went unaddressed. Subsequent work on Dalmo’ma evolved in such a way that the editors of each were fewer and the scope more defined. Digging for Roots, #5, had two editors, Christina Pacosz and Susan Oliver, and it’s a brilliant collection by women of the North Olympic Peninsula, much of it based in historical and pioneer experiences. Working the Woods Working the Sea, #6 also had two editors, Finn Wilcox and Jeremiah Gorsline, and focused on the fundamental work on this Peninsula, forestry and reforestation, and the fishing industry. This issue took Empty Bowl back to its roots, since so much of what we did as a collective group mirrored what had been done by Olympic Reforestation Inc., ORI, owned and operated by many of the same people as those involved in Empty Bowl—among them Finn, Mike, Jerry, Tim, Chuck Easton, yours truly—and supported by that group. To illustrate the collaboration of workers and poets and to show that many of us came from “elsewhere”, here’s my fondest memory of tree planting: four or five of us standing at the crest of a steep slope, a clearcut spread for hundreds of acres all around us, littered with slash and stumps, a lot of burn piles of roots and industrial waste. It’s a beautiful sunny day. We are taking a break, passing a joint around the circle. There are some newer crew members, and we’re just getting to know them. “So,” one of the new guys says on the inhale, “Where’d you all go to graduate school?”

To give you an idea of what it was like back then at the beginning of Empty Bowl, I’d like to read the beginning of my essay, “Running on Empty.”

When we weren't working in mud, when we weren't covered in it, we were holed up in big green Army tents, smelly like the back of the truck, to dry out, keep warm, cook a little stew for dinner, or make cheese sandwiches without leaving thumb prints, lie back and read. This was 1975, from November or December to April or May of '76, the Bicentennial year, Greyhound buses all over town. History everywhere, the tourist or antique hunter became its medium; in storefront windows sat old rockers, all shined up, beds and tables, date next to the price. But we escaped most of that for those four or five months we worked on the clear- cuts planting trees.Bob Blair and I shared a tent big enough for our cots, boxes of supplies and books stuffed underneath, a small round airtight wood stove, and a couple of lamps. The rest of the crew slept in tents except for those who'd done it once before; they were in homemade campers mounted on their decrepit pickups. A lot of time seems to have been taken up sitting in woolen longjohns, learning more efficient ways to dry our clothes. A system of lines ranged out from the safest point near the stove, clothes pins bearing the weight of socks and underwear. We cooked over the wood stove our odd concoctions of carbohydrates and protein; once I nearly gagged Tim McNulty with some barely cooked grain. Just before first light the mice in our food supply would wake us, we'd stoke the stove, cook some sorry cof fee, get back into damp rain gear, and carry charcoal-stained cheese sandwiches onto the clear-cut, hip bags filled with mudball treelings, Doug Fir, probably harvested by now for the toilet paper mills (pleasureboatstudio.com).

In Our Hearts & Minds, #7, was my project almost exclusively, with the support and involvement of the Port Townsend Sister City program with Jalapa, Nicaragua, and groups working with Salvadoran refugees. The final Dalmo’ma anthology, #8, Shadows of Our Ancestors, Reading in the History of Klallam-White Relations, was edited by Jerry Gorsline and is a pioneering work, I think, in that it presents one of the most thoroughly investigated histories of a single tribe and its origins and connections to this place in historical and geological time.

Books by single authors began when we started to receive copies of Bill Porter’s translations, printed and bound in Taiwan, I can tell you that The Zen Teaching of Bodhidarma changed my life, and we also received from the Taiwan printers and binders, copies of Mike O’Connor’s The Basin, which deftly illustrated the linkages of Pacific Rim cultures. The list of books by individual authors from that time includes first books and chapbooks by many now well-known Northwest poets, and I’ll name some: Tim McNulty, Finn Wilcox with those emblematic photographs taken by Steve R. Johnson, Mike O’Connor, Bill Ransom, Tom Jay, Andrew Schelling, Sharon Doubiago, Mary Lou Sanelli, Judith Roche, the late Jody Aliesan—whose poems were beautifully complemented by Linda Okazaki’s artwork.

Back to that model of the Pastoral, for a minute. We can’t really talk about it without going all the way back to the Greeks and all their magical figures. The one that always impressed me, even before I read Agamemnon, was Cassandra. She was condemned to know the future and to never be believed. I think she’s the archetype for contemporary poets like those of us who publish with Empty Bowl. Like Cassandra, our writing made public but couldn’t prevent dangerous forestry practices, overfishing and polluting our waters, mass murders of Central Americans, or the occupation of Hood Canal and the Salish Sea by Trident, an illegal first strike weapon. Yet Empty Bowl was a kind of refuge for those of us who wrote “from and for the outside.” Not in thinking of ourselves so much as Outsiders in the usual sense of having been overlooked, excluded or a “bad fit” for the mainstream market, but as shunning that approach to writing and the necessity of self-promoting. Empty Bowl was the vehicle for a collective energy of poets, artists, and community who cherished place, this place, this later called Cascadia Biome, bioregion, the wilderness then thought of as the Pacific Rim. Though now the term is more of a description for economists, in the 70s it described a geography and geology, it mapped out the climate history and civilization of a place that included native protectors along with Asian inhabitation of place and spirit. Hence the name Dalmo'ma a place for “digging roots” along the southern edge of this regional interest—an arm of lake Shasta to this day bears the tribal name, pit River.

Empty Bowl and Dalmo’ma anthologies were the artifacts, products of that collaborative and even tribal spirit that poets, artists and community working independently from their own aspirations to respond to this devotion to place could come together, see their art flourish as a body of collaborative energies in favor of protections that in the world of poetry had been too long ignored.


Michael Daley was born in Boston. In 1976 he was the founding editor of Empty Bowl press in Port Townsend. In 1983 Gary Snyder called his first collection of poetry, The Straits, “Superb, elegant poetically and fresh with the Northwest world.”

This essay first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #21