“I remember mudball fights between supporters of Dewey and supporters of Truman in my elementary school in 1948, where the Democrats shouted, ‘Phooey on Dewey!’” says Ed Sanders. He himself was the author of that chant: “It might have been my first rhymed presentation to the Universe.”
This is fitting for one of the most prominent political poets in America.
Sanders grew up in Blue Springs, Missouri, 15 miles from Kansas City. “I was raised on the edge of the prairie,” he remembers. Near his house, cows and pigs grazed. His father was a traveling salesman. “It was a middle-class life. We had a nice brick house. And I was a regular American kid. I was in the Boy Scouts; I was president of my high school student body; I was in the Order of De Molay [a fraternal order].” But in some ways Sanders’ parents were unusual. For example, his mother designed their house—and had aspired to be an engineer in her youth. “My mother was quite good with her hands,” Sanders explains. “She wanted me and my brother to take piano lessons, so she bought an old box piano at an auction, and took it completely apart in the living room, and reglued the hammers, put the strings on, reconstructed it.” Also, there was literature in the house. His mother would read Dickens to him at night—and was a Mickey Spillane fan. The family subscribed to magazines, including the avant-garde art magazine Tiger’s Eye, as well as Punch, the New Yorker, Collier’s, and the Saturday Evening Post. Sander’s father would often invent spontaneous story poems.
Nearby, in Kansas City, was jazz; young teenagers were allowed in nightclubs. Sanders saw Big Bob Dougherty sing risqué tunes like “Stick Out Your Can, Here Comes the Garbage Man”—“plus he played a mean tenor saxophone.” The crowd was interracial. “You could go to these clubs and dance in the forbidden mode—because jazz was a freedom zone.”
At the age of 15, Sanders discovered Dylan Thomas in Redbook magazine. He had already begun writing poetry. Sanders ordered Thomas’s books from Cokesbury Bookstore, in Kansas City, and began memorizing them. Visiting the University of Missouri bookstore in 1957, he found Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. Sanders converted to beatnikism.
In 1958 Sanders arrived in New York City to attend New York University. “I thought I might become a rocket scientist,” he remembers. The Mercury program was just beginning. In a Greek class he met Miriam, his future wife.
Sanders dropped out of college to take part in civil rights and peace actions. “I tried to board a nuclear submarine one summer, and went to jail,” he says. He was with a group called Polaris Action—their plan was to pour saltwater down the missile hatches. His first book, Poem From Jail, was written at the county jail in Uncasville, Connecticut. “I wrote some of it on toilet paper and most of it on cigarette packs,” he recalls. He smuggled the poem out wadded up in his tennis shoes.
Sanders returned to NYU and continued his literary activities. In 1962 he began the magazine Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts. “It made a big splash for its time. It had a kind of grabby title—and I gave it away free! I sent it out to all my heroes: Samuel Beckett and Pablo Picasso, Fidel Castro, Marianne Moore, Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, and all the Beats.” Allen Ginsberg, who was in Benares, India, and Charles Olson both wrote back quickly. These two historic figures became mentors to the young Sanders.
When Sanders graduated from NYU in 1964 (with a major in Greek and Latin) he decided to open a bookstore on the Lower East Side. By now, he and Miriam were married, and she was pregnant. “So I opened up this bookstore in an old kosher meat market. I left the words ‘strictly kosher’ on the outside, and added the words ‘Peace Eye Bookstore.’ There was a lot of chicken fat all over the floor, which I cleaned up.”
The Peace Eye included the first community print center, consisting of a stencil cutter and a mimeograph machine. Sanders printed fliers for the Diggers and the Yippies, and allowed poets to publish their books for free. He also helped soldiers deserting the Army, on the “Underground Railroad” to Canada. “I remember throwing away these military uniforms—I would find a garbage can somewhere. I should’ve kept them; I could put them up on eBay now.”
The Peace Eye became “a fashionable location.” Nico and Donovan visited. James Michener came to the book parties. Meanwhile, next door, above the Lifschutz Wholesale Egg store, lived Tuli Kupferberg, a legendary Beat poet, who was constantly publishing tiny magazines (including Birth and Yeah). In the fall of 1964, music was in the air: Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman,” The Beatles, “Leader of the Pack.” “So I pitched Tuli on it, that we would form a political poetry band,” Sanders recalls. Tuli agreed, and the two began thinking up names for a group. They considered “The Yodeling Socialists,” but finally settled on a word Norman Mailer had invented to substitute for a profanity in The Naked and the Dead. At first The Fugs played at the Peace Eye Bookstore. Sanders suspected they would be a success when friends began attending their rehearsals: “People would rather have a tooth cleaning than listen to a band rehearse, usually.” The Fugs began appearing throughout the Lower East Side, singing such infectious songs as: “Do you like boobs a lot? / You gotta like boobs a lot!”
On October 21, 1967 The Fugs took part in the historic attempt to levitate the Pentagon. “Tuli and I rented this flatbed truck that we were all on, with a sound system, and there were a bunch of Diggers there from San Francisco, the filmmaker Kenneth Anger, my wife, Miriam. “We were all chanting, ‘Demons out!’ in the Pentagon parking lot. Everybody said it was marvelous, and we stuck the tape on one of our Reprise albums—but the war went on for another seven years, so it didn’t really have efficacious results.”
Note that Sanders is not content with a symbolic effort. You could say that he is still searching for a poem that will change the world.
After the demise of The Fugs, Sanders closed the Peace Eye Bookstore and began investigating the Charles Manson commune for his column in the Los Angeles Free Press. At first, he suspected the police were framing them: “It didn’t make sense, that a roaming group of nomadic hippies in stripped-down dune buggies would be doing this type of murder—but I was wrong.” This grew into a book, The Family, which was recently reissued by Thunder’s Mouth Press.