American Poetry suffered a huge loss this past month when Ken Warren gave up the sheath. His publication House Organ, to my discerning eye, has become the most relevant venue always filled with an eclectic mix of well known poets, as well as unknown poets, and jesters. I first met Ken in Gloucester, Massachusetts, during the city’s holding of a “Charles Olson Festival” commemorating the poet who put Gloucester onto the map of American Poetry. There was to be a panel presentation and discussion in an amiably large hall near the library. On the panel were Robert Creeley, Vincent Ferrini, Hattie Jones, Ed Sanders and perhaps another person or two who I can’t recall. The audience was filled with a crowd of townspeople and a plethora of Northeast Corridor poets. In the course of the day I ran into at least 15 poets I had known or read with over the years. The main library near the discussion hall put on a presentation before the panel came together. It was a festival day in Gloucester, one of many I have enjoyed over the years. Those include Know Fish Ball, Ferrini’s 80th birthday party, and more recently a Ferrini day: meal and dance celebrating what would have been Ferrini’s 100th Birthday. He died in 2007.
I took along my neighbor, Harry Meizner, to the Olson Festival where I first met Ken. Meizner had been a student of Olson’s at SUNY Buffalo. Once on the grounds of the festival we took off in different directions after making plans to meet back at this spot. When we came back together, Harry was talking nonstop to this fellow, Ken Warren. Brief introductions, then we took off together to find a small restaurant. It turned out to be a one-of-a kind meal where friends were made. Ken already knew me by name via my being Publisher of Igneus Press. Igneus published most of Ferrini’s books beginning in 1990 and ending in 2001. Ken was an avid fan of most things Ferrini or Olson. He had yet to begin his magazine. Destiny dictated that he first edit and publish, along with Fred Whitehead, a selected book of Ferrini’s poems, The Whole Song. Consequently, Ken and I exchanged addresses and telephone numbers and kept in touch for the ensuing years.
The panel was wonderful, animated and informative. The members all knew one another over the years, so it was not uncommon for one of them to trigger the memories and synapses of one another as they went along. The audience was infected enough by the dialogue that they joined in, too. There were many close friends in this bunch. People like Peter Anastas, Elizabeth McKim and myself.
I fondly recall smoking a joint at intermission with Ed Sanders and Steve Luttrell from Portland, Maine. Steve was and is one of the founders of Café Review, another fine small press magazine and reading venue. Igneus poets had read as guests of the Café Review two or three times, bringing Bill Kemmett, W.E. Butts, Ferrini, P.J. Laska, Rich Blevins, Bob Snyder and myself, just to mention a few.
Fast Forward to 2000, I had driven my pickup truck to Cleveland for a visit with poet P.J. Laska, a longtime friend and collaborator. His wife, Warene, was the Chief Dietician at the two VA Hospitals in Cleveland. During my time with Laska, we made contact with Ken Warren and met up at Bob Podgurski’s house for an afternoon of pulling the poetic taffy. I recall that House Organ was underway. This time with Ken was rewarding. By now I had read some of his essays on Olson. I learned early on during these readings that Ken was truly an emerging scholar. He worked as a librarian which gave him the disciplines of researching, cross referencing and trying to tie some of the knots off that make up American Poetry.
Gradually, his simple little zine (made by folding an 8.5” x 11” paper lengthwise then using stapling as the binding) came to be as unpretentious as Ken was so it took very little time for the magazine to gain a following. I know I shared it with every poet I took seriously, including Rich Blevins and Richard Martin. Diversity is the first thing that comes to mind when I attempt to describe Ken’s impacting magazine. Intelligence and a sharp, poetic ear both make up the backbone, so it attracted poets from both coasts as contributors to a small zine originated in a small Ohio town.
I liked House Organ immediately. It included work from poets I knew as a young man, in San Francisco, like Jack Hirschman, as well as Martha King in NYC doing her wonderful little zine Giants Play In the Drizzle. Ken began to write essays on Olson’s relationship with the Grail. My father in law, Trevor Ravenscroft had written a book, Spear of Destiny which Ken had read. One summer Ken had called me up on his almost annual trip to Gloucester, he was with Vincent and wanted to drive up to New Hampshire to talk about the Grail. As much as I wished I could, the timing was bad, I was in midst of a divorce and my house was a war zone. But I began to respond to his essays, once or twice with poems, another time in a letter, where I informed him that Olson would be involved in the Gawain stream, too sentient to actually witness the Grail. As to Ferrini I suggested to Ken that he read or reread Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s Parsival, and study the character of Guernamantz, the man who educates the youthful Parsival “not to ask too many question.”
I last saw Ken in Gloucester the day of the 100th Birthday Anniversary of Vincent Ferrini being held at Cape Ann Museum, which holds the personal papers of Ferrini. It was the Summer of 2013. There was also a dinner dance, but in the afternoon there was a panel comprised of Peter Anastas, Elizabeth McKim, Ken Warren, Fred Whitehead, myself and a couple youngish scholars. I sat between Elizabeth and Ken on stage. I had to chuckle at the idea of fields of scholarship existing around older friends. In this information age scholarship seems to have eaten all the meat off the bones of the past, having moved on to devouring my own generation and its overlaps. I was the first in the room, had the hall all to myself. There was a piano on the stage, I sat down and played my one small melody. In a short while people made their way into the hall, downstairs at the Museum. Ken walked into the room with Fred Whitehead. I gave Ken a hug and handshake. It was genuinely good to see him. We went upstairs and out into a nicely landscaped brick courtyard. I sat and lit a cigarette while Ken grilled me about some Grail information, as well as my father-in-law’s book. It was fun. We both exchanged life information. He was retired, had moved back to his native New York. He seemed to be very active in his new life. Recently divorced as was I at 60, we compared notes and then talked about the Old Man, Ferrini, who had generously made himself available to our generations, actually 5 half generations that I know of, including my daughter, Sophia, who had become pals with Vincent toward the end of his life.
It happened that I had recently sent Ken a review I wrote on a recent Laska book, Night & Day. One of my big squawks over the years as the publisher of Igneus Press, and also as a reviewer has been how long it takes a book of poems to attract a reviewer then get written and submitted to a mag or journal, honestly 18 months is speed setting, two years is more realistic. This lag essentially guarantees the review, once in print, serves little help in marketing a book. By the time most reviews see print the wave of the new book has broken onto the shore. I sent Ken my review on Laska’s wonderful collection of poems and in less than two weeks I received a copy of House Organ with the Laska review in print, even before the usual note of acceptance arrived , thanking me for the submission.
In ending I shall say that we are all the poorer for Ken Warren’s passing, both the loss of Ken as a scholar and a thinker, and the loss of his editorial intelligence as practiced in his capacity as the beneficial force behind House Organ. I know I shall miss him as a man and ally. I suspect there are many who’ll miss Ken and his devotion to American Poetry.