When you look at Ed Sanders, even his hair leans left. The asymmetrical frizz and bushy mustache have been trademarks for decades. In February 1967, Life magazine featured the owner of the Lower East Side’s Peace Eye Bookstore, publisher of Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts, and co-founder of The Fugs on its cover (“Happenings: The Other Culture”). A few months later, Sanders led thousands of antiwar marchers in an attempt to exorcize and levitate the Pentagon.
Where is he now? In Woodstock, of course.
Sanders and his wife Miriam live in a modest house walking distance from the village green. A trio of preternaturally mellow deer grazes under a birdfeeder a few yards from their door. When the poet emerges, they glance up, unruffled. Behind them is a rushing brook with a small but tuneful waterfall.
“Negative ions,” gloats Sanders. He’s dressed in layered red and white shirts, black jeans, and black high-tops. On his jacket lapel, a button reads Imagine Peace.
Small as it is, the Sanders’ home burgeons with creative life. There are bookshelves everywhere, even above the windows. On top of the piano sit several more musical instruments, including a homemade lyre. There are birdcages, fish tanks, orchids from places as far-flung as China and Chile. There’s also a rainbow Peace flag, a few marble sculptures, and several framed prints, including a certificate with a linocut of a winged horse, declaring Sanders the Poet Laureate of Woodstock.
Any item in this lively assemblage may prompt a cluster of stories. A snapshot of a former pet duck named Jacques sets Sanders reminiscing about his kin, the first rescued by daughter Deirdre from a psych experiment at SUNY Albany. A later clutch of duck eggs hatched in a box on the floor, where the hatchlings imprinted on a row of tennis shoes. “They became seriously screwed-up ducks. They’d try to mount your shoe,” Sanders says, adding that a Scandinavian camera crew once filmed a duck humping his sneaker.
This may or may not be the reason he’s turned down 37 interview requests this year, mostly from European film crews. But today he seems eager to talk, settling onto a red settee at the room’s epicenter and resting his head on the back like an analysand, often staring upwards or closing his eyes as he speaks.
Foremost on his mind is his latest book and CD, Poems for New Orleans (North Atlantic Books; Paris Records). A magisterial suite of poems tracing the Crescent City from its founding in 1718 through the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, Poems for New Orleans is a vertical history in verse, recalling Charles Olson’s Gloucester and William Carlos Williams’s Paterson.
The project began in spring 2006 with an extraordinary offer from music producer Michael Minzer: He’d pay for Sanders to travel anywhere he wanted to research and record a CD of poems. Sanders’s first thought was Iraq, but “Miriam was not interested in going to the Green Zone. We’ve been married 47 years—she has shoot-down rights.” They considered the Egyptian pyramids, the Costa Rican rainforest, and other locales before choosing New Orleans. Sanders had given many readings there, and was already clipping news articles on the aftermath of Katrina and the grotesque failures of FEMA to allocate $8.3 billion in rebuilding funds. (“I’m Jack the Clipper,” he says.)
He also had extensive material in his historical database. The French, Spanish, and American colonists who displaced Choctaw Indians from the Mississippi Delta reminded him of local history. “It’s just like in Kingston—the Dutch took over the Esopus Indians’ cornfields in the late 1600s. Martha Washington bought wheat from what’s now Herzog’s Plaza.”
Listening to Sanders, you get the impression that everything interests him; there are no short answers. Describing the Battle of New Orleans, he notes that Andrew Jackson’s troops included “Dirty Shirts” toting long rifles (“a new super-weapon, the equivalent of an AK-47, only it’s 1814”); the “resplendent militia of New Orleans, all fancied up;” coastal pirates; and free Haitian people of color, radicalized by revolution. All fodder for poems.
Sanders created a Haitian family whose ancestry stretches from Jackson’s troops to Katrina survivor Grace Lebage to anchor his narrative. The Katrina poems range from the preflood tourist city he calls the “anarcho-bohemian-freedomistic Polis/where everyone tried their fastest licks/on the Carpe Diem guitar to the wake of the flood and beyond, to the fullest commixture/of everything that ever was in the Ever.”
As a young poet in the 1950s, Sanders often wrote persona poems in the tradition of early Pound, Eliot, and Lowell. “It’s very American to write in other voices,” he says. The New Orleanean voices he channels include an exiled survivor in “Echoes of Heraclitus” (“Four days I sat in the attic/with 27 cans of beans/we were going to use on Labor Day/and some coca cola I drank very slowly/to make it last”) and the trembling-legged hipster of “My Darling Magnolia Tree” (“Dope won’t help. Tight shoes won’t help./The poems of Rilke won’t help./Help! Won’t help”).
On the CD, Sanders’s Midwestern diction sometimes morphs into such personae as good ol’ boy Johnny Pissoff, gleefully hijacker of idle FEMA trailers; he also employs several female readers. The entire CD is scored by New Orleans composer Mark Bingham, with sounds spanning marching-band Americana, jazz funeral, and even a healing raga. The final track, the 13:30 minute “Then Came the Storm,” is an emotional tour-de-force welding music and words.
Sanders has often been called an American bard; American Bard, in fact, is the title of one of his solo CDs. It’s an apt appellation for many reasons, including his affinity for recitation and the epic scope of his ambition. He’s currently working on volume six of his nine-volume America: A History in Verse; Volumes 1-5, completed over the past 10 years, will soon be released as a five-CD set. He’s also penned book-length verse biographies of Allan Ginsberg and Anton Chekhov.
Though the terms “creative nonfiction” and “New Journalism” are embedded in the zeitgeist—Sanders’ bestselling prose investigation of the Manson murders, The Family, being a prime example—he was left to coin his own phrase for his nonfiction verse: Investigative Poetry. In a City Lights-published manifesto by this name, he exhorts poets to “write everything down,” advice that he’s clearly taken to heart. He’s stored about 500 bankers’ boxes of research material in his garage and outbuildings. “I try to organize so I can find stuff in less than a minute,” he explains, adding that he learned to file data by working with revered local historian Alf Evers during his final years. “Information systems tend towards chaos if left on their own.”
He uses a computer as well, but for longevity “paper trumps digitalia.” He and Miriam just returned from Europe, where they saw numerous medieval manuscripts. “They’re still happening,” he says with immense satisfaction.
Sanders overlaps many projects at once, following a regime he calls “All Projects Now.” By his own admission, he’s been known to fill out 3x5 cards while pushing a shopping cart. Indeed, he seems constitutionally incapable of not writing poetry: even his emails have line breaks.
Sanders often performs poems with musical accompaniment, and has invented a variety of instruments to suit his needs, including the Mona Lisa Lyre, the Talking Tie, and the Pulse Lyre. He fetches an attache case and pulls out two partial gloves with dangling wires and metal strips on each fingertip. It looks like a homemade torture device, which can pose problems at airports, says Sanders. “Homeland Security doesn’t like the Pulse Lyre.”
Growing up in Kansas City, he studied piano and drums, listened to jazz and classical music, and belonged to the Society of Barbershop Quartet Singers. Quite a leap to the anarchic, exuberantly D-I-Y sound of The Fugs, but the times, as one of Sanders’ colleagues wrote, were a’changin’.
Sanders’s Tales of Beatnik Glory, a four-volume suite of stories set between 1957 and 1969, limns the beatnik-to-hippie crossfade in a seamless braid of memoir, fiction, and the translucently fictionalized. Sanders’s hybridized beat poets, amphetamine-heads, performance artists, and film freaks interact with such real-world colleagues as Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas, and fellow Fug Tuli Kupferberg.
The opening story, “The Mother-in-Law,” includes a “pretty accurate” vision of Miriam’s mother. “We’d be planning indictment stuff with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and she’d come squinching up Avenue A with these shopping bags full of chocolate-covered Streit’s matzos and palm hearts,” Sanders recalls. The story’s “m-i-l” eventually tracks the young couple to a striped party tent “in the Catskill hills near Phoenicia, New York.”
Ed and Miriam Sanders moved upstate in 1977, buying their house with a royalty check from The Family. It’s still paying bills: The Family was optioned for film (as was Tales of Beatnik Glory), and Sanders just received a set-up bonus. He’s hopeful the film will be made: “It’s a good bloody American crime story with nudity and communes and devil worship and the Beach Boys—it all maintains its Billy the Kid allure.”
Maybe Ed Sanders is entering his Hollywood period: the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading closed with The Fugs’s “CIA Man.” In a recent “Talk of the Town,” New Yorker columnist Hendrik Hertzberg proposed Sanders (among others) for Hillary Clinton’s soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat. Meanwhile, there are more albums to record–his tireless band just finished The Fugs’s Final Album, Part 2—and more poems to write, including four more volumes of America: A History and a verse biography of Robert F. Kennedy.
Does this prodigious output ever feel burdensome? Sanders shrugs. “It beats working,” he says.