Book review: From Iowa City to San Francisco, ‘The Ultimate Actualist Convention’ is a treasure-trove packed with literary gems

‘The Ultimate Actualist Convention: A Detailed View of Iowa City Actualism in the 1970s & 1980s and Its Migration to the San Francisco Bay Area,’ released Aug. 24, 2017.

The Ultimate Actualist Convention (2017) is a collection of poems, plays, autobiographical sketches, essays and historical documents concerning the Iowa City poets and artists known as the Actualists. Subtitled “A Detailed View of Iowa City Actualism in the 1970s & 1980s and Its Migration to the San Francisco Bay Area,” this tome was edited by Morty Sklar, Cinda Kornblum and Dave Morice, who were part of this unique community of artists whose works deserve to be explored and cherished.

In 2008 UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) bestowed the title of “City of Literature” onto Iowa City, citing over 80 years of teaching creative writing on the University circuit and the city’s world famous University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Many writers and other artists who toiled on the “fringes” of literary expression outside the stuffy confines of academia were being ignored despite their invaluable literary and cultural contributions, including the Actualists.

As Sklar, writer and publisher at The Spirit That Moves Us Press, which released The Ultimate Actualist Convention, asked: “What about the community of poets, other writers and small independent publishers who thrived in Iowa City, many of whom had been in the workshop — as students or teachers, and became alienated” for various reasons from these institutions?

The individuals who would become collectively known as the Actualists were drawn to the creative community blossoming in Iowa City during the early 1970s, whether it was to attend the university’s International Writing Program, the Writers’ Workshop or the Typography Course at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. In other cases, according to Kornblum, “some just wandered into town.”

The term Actualist is attributed to one of the movement’s founders, Darrell Gray (1945-1986), as documented in whimsical detail by Morice in the section “The Origin of Actualism,” which Kornblum said was one of her favorite parts of the book. As Morice recounts in his essay, he was living in an apartment with Kornblum’s husband, the poet and publisher Allan Kornblum (1949-2014), at 214 East Court Street when the idea was raised of building an alternative to the Writers’ Workshop, “a writing program of our own.”

David “Dr. Alphabet” Morice writing poetry atop the Jefferson Building in 1979. — photo by Lillian Morice

Fellow poet Anselm Hollo proposed an idea: “You know, I think you guys have a poetry movement going on. The energy is there. All you need is a name for it,” Morice recounted. Gray, who “lived and breathed poetry,” agreed with Hollo, and later came up with the name: ACTUALISM.

The movement had an “open-door policy,” according to Morice. “Basically all you had to do was go to 214 East Court, climb up the steps to the second floor, take a few steps down the hallway and open the door to the living room. Then you stepped into Actuality.”

Gray wrote “The Actualist Manifesto,” appropriately written as a poem, in his apartment in December 1972; it was published in Morice’s poetry magazine, Gum, which was one fourth the size of a sheet of typing paper. Even with a name and a manifesto, there is no exact definition for Actualism, the book’s editors and authors confirm.

“We each have our own perspective, with bias toward our own contributions,” Kornblum said. “I see it as sparks of creativity that occurred within a community of writers, artists, playwrights and book enthusiasts. The poetry is playful, grounded in everyday experiences and language, with a variety of styles.”

To help illustrate this point, Kornblum shared a poem by her husband Allan (which appears in the book):

“A Pinball Manifesto”

Every poem should be like
A game of pinball.
Lights should flash,
Bells should ring,
Numbers should spin,
And in the back of the readers’ minds
They should always be hoping
For that free game.

This anthology, like poetry, cannot be boxed in by labels for bookstore shelves or chapters in college textbooks. There is much to learn and ponder while reading this collection, which chronicles the early days of the Actualist movement (before there was a name for it) all the way to its so-called “final days” — a span of 10-15 years.

“There was so much going on in Iowa City in those days — readings, magazines with local cover art, conventions, poetry marathons and the Joyce Holland hoax — it’s all there scattered throughout the book,” Kornblum said. (For more about the “Joyce Holland hoax,” you’ll have to check out pages 238-242 of the anthology).

Some of the Iowa City Actualists traveled west to the Golden Gate city of San Francisco, eventually giving birth to “West Coast Actualism.” One of the prominent figures of West Coast Actualism is theater artist and writer David Schein. After studying at the U of I, Schein co-founded the Iowa Theater Lab and later the Blake Street Hawkeyes in Berkeley, California. In the late ’70s, Schein met future award-winning actress Whoopi Goldberg, and they soon became collaborators.

One of Sklar’s favorite sections of the anthology is “David Schein’s personal and other history of how experimental theater began in Iowa City” and “established itself in the San Francisco Bay area,” he said. “He was also Whoopi Goldberg’s first boyfriend and promoted her there. When she became famous, he didn’t follow her.”

Schein and Goldberg co-wrote a performance piece for the stage titled “The Last Word,” which is very much in the spirit of Actualism. When Goldberg was asked by the editors if they could include the text in this book, she agreed “at the drop of a hat,” according to Sklar. The play is an entertaining glimpse into the theatrical and linguistic talents of its authors, proving to be an exciting find.

Sklar, a New York-native, arrived in Iowa City in 1971 after briefly serving in the U.S. Army and attending Queens College and The New School. He was inspired by the “natural-voice aesthetics of the Iowa City Actualists” along with the revolutionary styles of the Beat Generation and the New York Poets. Sklar founded The Spirit That Moves Us Press in 1975. In addition to The Ultimate Actualist Convention, he published The Actualist Anthology in 1977 and numerous other titles.

Recalling how he became an Actualist, Sklar said, “The first Actualist Convention was being planned in Iowa City not long after I got there. Darrell Gray asked me if I wanted to read my poetry there and I replied, ‘But it’s just for Actualists, isn’t it?’ His reply was, ‘Well, you’re an Actualist.’ My feeling was one of having been knighted.”

The Ultimate Actualist Convention is a treasure-trove packed with literary gems. Some of the poems convey universal experiences of the human condition, some touch on the personal experiences of the authors, some blur the line between both. When these unique personalities, with their unique abilities, converged during this time — there was something nearly magical going on.

David Morice, left, with Glen and Harry Epstein, 1974 — submitted photo

Alas, many authors featured in this collection are no longer with us: in addition to Gray, Allan Kornblum and Hollo are David Hilton, John Sjoberg, Jim Mulac, Kay Amert, Glen Epstein, Howard Zimmon and David Sessions. These writings serve as a lasting tribute to their legacy. Readers now can discover their words for the first time, and those who remember this era can enjoy the wonder of rediscovering them.

The book was a labor of love which took two years to create, starting in October of 2015. Bringing together the creative voices and the fragmented history behind their words was a daunting task for the editors, achieved through a flurry of “thousands and thousands of emails,” according to Kornblum.

“Every time I decided to give up on the project, Morty pushed me to continue,” Kornblum said, calling Sklar’s efforts “heroic.”

Sklar praised Kornblum’s contributions. “I couldn’t have done it without Cinda,” he said, calling her “a meticulous and consummate record keeper.”

Kornblum said Morice “provided valuable documentation of the origin of actualism, his poetry marathons and the Joyce Holland hoax. He also helped expand the book to cover the San Francisco Bay Area contributors.”

Sklar, Kornblum and Morice successfully bring together the voices of the Actualists into a vast collage of art and memories to be treasured for the ages.

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