A key figure in the world of Actualism has died. Morty Sklar passed away on Dec. 28, 2018 in New York City. He was 83.
Actualism, for the uninitiated, is the plain-speech poetry that got its start in Iowa City and soon spread to both coasts on the wings of its devotees. Followers included free verse performers and luminaries such as Whoopi Goldberg.
It was Finnish poetry professor and translator Anselm Hollo who recognized the literary energy that was brewing in Iowa City in the early 1970s. He suggested the group needed a name. Someone came up with “Actualism” and a movement was born.
“Poetry can be so many more things / Than what people mostly believe it is.”
The movement had no formal tenets and has been likened to Dadaism and conceptual performance art.
Though its membership was mostly Writers Workshop or English department graduates, the Actualists began as as a kind of anti–Writers Workshop street poetry that invited all comers to join its ranks.
Morty Sklar became a champion of Actualism and published several Actualist poets with his press, The Spirit That Moves Us.
Before he got to Iowa City, Morty Sklar served a few years in the 82nd Airborne, US Army in the mid-1950s. He got hooked on heroin in 1959 and didn’t stop until 1966. Sklar tried to quit many times before he heard about a new program in New York City.
That rehab program eventually became Phoenix House, an acclaimed residence and substance disorder service that has almost a hundred sites in nine states today.
In 1967, Sklar started a newsletter at the rehab center called Defense that included residents’ writings.
He was among the first to complete the program, which has helped thousands address substance use and get clean. In 2008, he received the Phoenix House Alumnus of the Year Award, the first person to be honored with the award.
In 1969 Sklar landed in Iowa City, where he drove a bus while earning a B.A. in English. Sklar introduced Poetry in the Buses, which placed poems by local poets into city buses. The Iowa City program continues today as Poetry in Public.
By the mid-1970s he was publishing a regular Iowa City magazine that featured local writers, artists and art.
But Sklar wasn’t doing it alone.
In the early 1970s, Iowa City was loaded with small-run magazines with titles like The Actual Now and Then, Candy, Cronopios, Gum, Identity Cards, The Iowa Review, The Iowa State Liquor Store, Kamadhenu, The Lamp in the Spine, Mandala, Matchbook, Micromegas, Nickel and Dime Quarterly, PF Flyer, Search For Tomorrow, Sebastian Quill, Suction, This, Toothpaste, Typewriter and L.
In 1977 Sklar published The Actualist Anthology which included work by 14 Actualist poets from around the world.
In 2017, he co-edited and published The Ultimate Actualist Convention, an Actualism archive that collects poems, writings and documents about the poetry movement. The book is a vital resource for the Actualist Iowa outsider poetry movement.
Sklar stayed in Iowa City until 1989.
In a 2015 email to Little Village, he wrote that he had lived in the old Iowa City Post Office. In the 1980s Iowa City was undergoing an urban renewal project that transformed the downtown. Old buildings were razed and new ones took their place.
When urban renewal money was doled out to relocate Sklar took it and moved back to New York to be near his family.
In 2012, he did a reading at Uptown Bill’s from The Smell of Life: Poems 1969 to 2005.
Morty Sklar is survived by his wife, Marcela Bruno, of Jackson Heights, NY.
“SO THIS IS EARTH”
by Morty Sklar
So this is Earth, neat roads between hills
over croppt grass
where the slope meets the shoulder,
I hook & twiddle
my middle finger
I allow the clouds to rise
and the trees to stand,
til I can’t tell the difference
Arms like an armachair,
the speed of the car is slow
compared to my size,
the trees patient
as British subjects
the road a rolling
in whatever direction we head