By Stephen Scott Whitaker
Ugly Duckling Presse's pamphlets are an ongoing A-plus docu-series of work ranging from translation to biography to analysis and all intersections that fall between. Candy for the candy seekers. Don Mee Choi’s Translation as a Mode=Translation is an Anti-Colonial Mode cuts into American exceptionalism as it is imported via military presence and dominance (recommended for film nerds as well), Tinashe Mushakavanhu’s Reincarnating Marechera: Notes on a Speculative Archive plumbs the mysteries of Zimbabwe’s most precious revolutionary writer and in Iris Cushing’s The First Books of David Henderson and Mary Korte: A Research, Cushing deep dives into the background of poets David Henderson and the “more obscure” Mary Korte. Largely biography, Cushing also analyzes and contextualizes each poet’s first book, offering up a rich and exciting showcasing of two poets against a backdrop of activism on both the west and east coast. Cushing’s also written a book about making a book, not just the writing, but also the collaborative process between editor/publisher and the poet. Focused on their first book, and with a poet’s eye and ear for brevity and cadence, Cushing’s prose cascades along, a sweeping document exploring the intersections between activism and poetry, ever resonating with current events.
The two poets are fascinating portraits. Korte is an energetic nun looking poetry in the eye and not flinching, eventually forcing her to choose between poetry and the convent; a slow burn of a decision and one not lightly made by Korte. As a nun, Korte became involved with Diane di Prima and the San Francisco Diggers, an “anarchist community-action group fashioned after the seventeenth-century English Protestant Radicals by the same name.” Korte’s life intersects first with di Prima, and then Robert Hawley, publisher of Oyez books, and together they shape Hymn to the Gentle Sun, one that threatened her relationship with the nuns of her order. Korte employs allusion and homage in a conversation with other poets in each of the poems in Hymn, a construct she would use throughout her writing.
Henderson’s life is energized by New York City, where he teaches “in the SEEK program” and is “collaborating with black poets and activists”. Amari Baraka writes the introduction to Felix of the Silent Forest, and writes that Henderson was a Black man, “longing for the God who is him self” who “reaches..to become the spirit of everything.” Henderson, taking the cartoon character Felix the Cat (the wonderful, wonderful Cat...), a trickster of sorts, and sets him loose in New York City. Henderson’s first book paints New York City as a dystopia, a sentiment echoed in both poetry and hip-hop (for example see Nas' Illmatic, Digable Planets' Blow Out Comb, to name a few). Henderson’s a dynamic personality, using the I-Ching in composing poems, eventually moving back to California “to help direct the University without Walls” at Berkely, and writing a biography of Jimi Hendrix.
The First Books of David Henderson and Mary Korte: A Research, is a brief and inspiring biography, rich and dense, with fine analysis by Cushing. Like a double helix, it follows two poets from two distinct communities in the turbulent late 60s as they publish their first books, by hand.