Linda Russo

Real and Imagined Muses: The Angel Hair Anthology

Angel Hair Sleeps with a Boy in My Head: The Angel Hair Anthology.  Ed. by Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh. New York: Granary Books, 2001.

Linda Russo

For centuries women poets have struggled with, negotiated and besmirched the notion of the glorious muse, the celebrated source of men’s poetic inspiration. The conflation of this mythic figure with real women who were involved with, even if only tangentially, relations of poetic production, blurred them; women were neither wholly real nor simply imagined. Establishing poetic identities for themselves was thus troubled. In the late 19th century Elizabeth Barrett Browning created a fictional poetic figure for herself — the hard-working and independent Aurora Leigh — to offset the muse, and though Virginia Woolf lamented that Barrett Browning's epic novel-poem left no successors, it was received with mixed praise — some felt its heroine and its form too masculine, its subject matter not properly feminine. Later Marianne Moore and Mina Loy were celebrated as “girls,” H.D. as the delicate imagiste, and so on through the 20th century. A struggle for clarity ensued when women, in poetic acts, sought to reconcile their writing practices with the roles they were given — by poetry, by the men around them who practiced poetry — to play. And for many women their poetic lives were, as Rachel Blau Duplessis termed it, a “career of that struggle.” The situation had not changed terribly much when Anne Waldman was barely a young woman cutting her teeth on the possibilities proposed by the New American Poetry in the 1960s. In Joanne Kyger’s recently republished Japan and India Journals[1] of 1960-64, for example, we encounter a young poet mired in notions of feminine identity that explicitly discouraged her development as a poet: one can not be, she reads, she is told, both a woman and a poet — since she was a muse, she could not take a (feminine) muse. This would upset poetry’s gender economy.

A record of women publishing, in the 1950s and 1960s, poetry written in the new, open forms is the record of women overcoming such prohibitive notions. Angel Hair, from 1966 onward, was to play a significant role in contributing to the vitality of this record. Even though, as Lewis Warsh remarks in his introduction, in magazines and books, Angel Hair published “embarrassingly” few women, with Angel Hair Waldman and Warsh created a space open to continued change in the field of poetic production; it was, Waldman notes, a “seed syllable that unlocked various energetic post-modern and post-New American Poetry possibilities, giving a younger generation cognizance that you can take your work, literally, into your own hands.” Angel Hair came to life in a decade when American Poetry was taken into the hands of unprecedented numbers of women as poets and editors, constructing through their work a productive relation to innovative poetic discourses. Throughout the 1960s, Diane di Prima, Margaret Randall, Rosmarie Waldrop, and Bernadette Mayer also co-edited little magazines and small presses (with men, usually a husband or lover). It is in the context of this history of the re-discovery of women’s poetic agency — in the form of contribution to the construction of poetry as a public, social act — that I’d like to remark upon The Angel Hair Anthology.

“Angel Hair” is the imagined muse in a poem by Jonathan Cott, a college friend of Waldman’s, which prefaces the anthology. This is the imagined she, knowledgeable and sexy, accompanying the poet and “sleep[ing] with a boy in [his] head” (and not the delicate pasta) for which Angel Hair was named. It is interesting on some level that Waldman and Warsh were drawn to these imagined figures (Angel Hair’s boy-companion has no name) — “imagined” not only in terms of coming into existence in a poem, but being also imagined beings in the poem, figures inside the male poet’s head who nonetheless exert an influence on his “real” poetic world. But more interesting still is the fact that juxtaposed to this imaginary-poetic realm were the real social and material realms in which Waldman and Warsh would effect their energy and influence through the realization of Angel Hair. The figure of the girl-muse Angel Hair freed from her fixed, figurative role becomes the namesakes of the magazine Angel Hair, which ran for six issues from 1966-69, and Angel Hair press, which published 60 books, 10 catalogues, and 3 broadsides in the 11 year period from 1967-78. Girl-muse Angel Hair comes to stand for poetic innovation enabled by the imagination and enactment women's as textual (rather than sexual) possibility.

The impact of all of this can be felt in this hefty anthology, which reprints the complete contents of the six issues and, from the press, either substantial book excerpts or, in many cases, whole books. 21 whole books, though the pagination, of course is duplicated in only a few cases, as in Clark Coolidge’s and Ron Padgett’s Bun, where the whole page is employed more for its whiteness than its wordedness. Kyger’s Joanne, originally 39 sparsely texted pages, is here condensed to 14, page breaks signified by a triple asterisk. The 8 pages of Waldman’s Giant Night here condensed to 5 pages similarly marked. But the whole “acquired mystery” of John Weiners’s Hotels 1970, the whole of the whimsical and savvy The Basketball Article (Waldman and Mayer), and several others, make this collection remarkable and rare: most of these books are out of print (though Lewis Warsh is known to have a small stock of a few titles featured here).

The sense of organized, occupied space that was for many a generative aesthetic is recuperated somewhat in the editors’ (and publisher’s) thoughtfully executed decision to, as inclusively as possible, present everything. “Angel Hair” is thus less a collection of printed objects than an oeuvre, a collection of events and actions undifferentiated by time and space but reflective of it. I say “undifferentiated” because the publications that compose the anthology are auspiciously undated. This is a pointedly poetic record. Underscored, in the dual-running introductions (on a two-columned page) by Waldman and Warsh, and in a collection of “memoirs” (accompanying photographs) in a diverse assembly of voices, is the poets who comprised the historical moment that was both Angel Hair’s and part of something much larger; larger than the collaborative vision that is Angel Hair; larger than individuals who provided materials or worked manually to print and circulate them. There is no distinct contributor’s list (in the magazines or in the anthology) and the collected memoirs do not serve as biographies; they do not sing onanistic praises. All are not accounted for, but captured is a sense of the significance of the whole for which all are accountable in a chronology jumbled and jostled as this section proceeds alphabetically from memoir to memoir. For bibliophiles and those of us whose lives aren’t indelibly marked by the particular moments that comprise the history of Angel Hair, the anthology includes a detailed list of publications, with cover images and specs (size, page length, date, run and cover artist).

The result is perhaps the first anthology that successfully opens out rather than groups, camps, or encloses. It might not be nostalgia for a time before-my-time that leads me to believe that the guiding spirit here is generosity, discovery, and kinship. For Warsh the bi-coastal nature of the venture — enabled by the two editors, both New Yorkers, having met at the 1965 Berkeley Poetry Conference — is partly responsible: “I . . . felt that we made our point in trying to define a poetry community without coastal boundaries — a community based on a feeling of connectedness that transcended small aesthetic differences, all the usual traps that contribute to a blinkered pony vision of the world.” These connections were enabled by the meeting of geographical mobility and printability in the “mimeo revolution” — a period of poetic production captured in another Granary Books publication, A Secret History of the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing 1960-1980 (1998) of which Angel Hair was a primary benefactor. Undoubtedly the liberation of machinery and the schism of contemporary poetry from the Ivory Tower initiated by Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology The New American Poetry enabled women to try their hand at editing and publishing, but it was also the reconfiguration of social roles that poets of a generation were eager to continue, in their poetry and in their poetry-centered lives, that enabled the spirited Waldman, taking cues and inspiration from the few women poets then on the scene (Kyger and di Prima, Denise Levertov and Lenore Kandel are a few she has mentioned). In a sense Waldman, a poet who celebrates the muse as an inspirational figure, could also have as real muses real women poets. This is why, I believe, for a younger generation, Waldman emerges (along with others — Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, and Rosmarie Waldrop to name but three) as a figure of possibility for continued change and continued connections that, despite the masculinist and misogynist tinges that surface here and there throughout the anthology, women would increasingly foster. Following after these few “seed syllable” women (Waldman’s phrase), a sizeable history of women poet-editors has ensued; since 1970 women have started over 70 little magazines and small presses devoted to poetic experimentation, almost half of these since 1990 alone.

The Angel Hair Anthology reminds us that the mimeo revolution was much more than the sum of its parts — those old mimeo’d books we might come across, if we’re lucky, the poets we might write letters to, or even meet — that the person-machine-poem-book assemblage that transformed poetry during the Cold War and throughout the 1970s was alive through a collective sense of possibility for living a poetics in politically troubled times. It reminds us, also, that Allen Ginsberg, so often an orchestrator, often referenced as such, needn’t emerge as a centralizing figure; he is mentioned but a few times in the memoirs and introduction. The absence of his writing doesn’t deny his importance or presence, but it does make room to notice that a politics other than Ginsberg’s personal/prophetic poetics are here in the making. The book-length explorations of a few women poets investigate a range of tactics: notably, the child-rearing complexities that compose Notley’s Incidentals in the Day World, Mayer’s hyper-experiential Moving, the investigative and statistical poetics of Tapa Kearney’s Cuba, Charlotte Carter’s detective story Sheltered Life, which, twisted through with issues of race and gender, evokes a Duras-like discomfort, and Hannah Weiner’s visually and aurally disruptive Clairvoyant Journal. These few, along with Waldman and Kyger, are the women of Angel Hair books.  

The Angel Hair Anthology is a significant collection, in that it signifies how, running alongside the high times and antics celebrated in tales of the 2nd generation New York School, from many corners radical experimentation investigated differentials of political power that would emerge as central concerns for a generation of poets of the late 1970s and early 80s. While the work of individuals such as Ashbery, Berrigan and Coolidge might provide some obvious associations with the various strategies that would be taken up by Language poets, The Angel Hair Anthology brings to light various investigations that defined a decade of poetic innovative necessities, reminding us that it takes a community to raise its poets, and that lines of connection, lineages that so often favor male forefathers and heirs, though readily apparent, disperse complexly — by “leaving lines a gender,” we might say — into multiple lines, into the lines of the many poems that constitute Poetry.

[1] Republished as Strange Big Moon: the Japan and India journals, 1960-1964 (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2000). See Big Bridge #7,

Bio:  Linda Russo lives in Buffalo, NY, and edits, with Christopher W. Alexander, verdure, a magazine of poetry and poetics. Her work has appeared in Jacket, Big Allis, LVNG, Outlet, The Poetry Project Newsletter, Rampike, and Tripwire.

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