In memoriam: Actualist author and publisher Morty Sklar dies

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Morty Sklar — submitted photo

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.

Hollo wrote:

“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.

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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.

by Morty Sklar

So this is Earth, neat roads between hills
My hand
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,
my body
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

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  1. Actualism! We had so much fun back in the day. We became a literary family, and Morty was one of the essential parts of our family. We were literary tricksters. We were wild. We had superfun.

    I remember one afternoon that Morty surprised the consonants out of me. I was walking down a downtown street thinking about poetry. Suddenly, Morty jumped out from behind a building, his arms raised, and he shouted, “Actualism! I want Actualism!” Morty was a great guy, a real Actualist Once I regained my composure, I laughed heartily with him. May he rest in fun.

  2. Condolences and love to family. Morty will be missed especially by those of us who met him through Phoenix House

  3. This fork in the road
    is for cake. Let them eat
    their words our words
    fired from Gum
    a bubble of breath
    the spirit that moves
    over the face of the
    deep serious publications
    like a glimpse of a giggle
    pouring from the roof
    of a building in transit
    where temporary people
    eat temporary food
    get temporary shits
    write temporary genius
    on rolls and scrolls
    when the paper runs out
    wrap it around
    until the A’s line up
    to see the secret
    mess age

    it’s bright & simple
    books arr anged around us
    so the spirit moves us
    then moves on

  4. Many boxes of books Morty has left behind. I hope they will be shared. Perhaps, a poetry professor will make them required reading.
    I helped Morty with his website and he was a strict editor. Sometimes I got frustrated but he always made me laugh with his wordplay jousting matches.
    He will be missed and should be. Godspeed Morty

  5. The sun rises.
    Morty is gone
    And many before him.
    Yet friends remain.
    And more friends await.
    The sun rises.

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