The 1970s were strange times in Portland, Maine. I
remember walking along Fore Street on a warm, humid
October afternoon in 1975, when the vegetation had gone
bare and the sun was visibly lower every day and the
harbor was already cold, thinking sardonically of the
phrase: "Paris of the '70s." Some guy had written a letter
to The Portland Times (one of the many alternative
newspapers that came went in a flash during those years)
comparing the surge of artistic and literary activity in
Portland to the same forces in Paris during the 1920s.
"Portland is the Paris of the '70s," he had written, or
something like that, and the phrase became a running
joke with us whenever we wanted to call attention to
cases of sentimental self-aggrandizement. All of us,
however -- artists, writers, musicians, theater people,
students -- knew what he was talking about. Walking
through the hazy October sunlight, I played with the
phrase while I was thinking how to write an article for
The Portland Times about Bruce Holsapple.
My cousin owned the building at 85 Park Street where
Holsapple lived and Contraband Press was
headquartered. On the top floor were four tiny rooms.
Each one housed a poet or an artist of some kind, or
merely some roughly college-age person who dressed in
hippie-like rags, drank and took drugs, worked at some
extremely grungy job like cutting sails for sailboats, and
had, or adopted for social purposes, an artistic disposition
-- which in those days meant an alienated, perhaps
cynical manner of speaking and a nominally aesthetic
personal philosophy. For better or worse, people had or
were at least interested in philosophy back then.
Especially their own.
Holsapple lived up there in one of the rooms for nearly
ten years and was different from most of the others
because of his intensity and seriousness about art. He
wrote and published poems because he thought poetry
was important, both personally and culturally. For a
spell during the mid-1970s he peddled his poems by
tacking neatly typed and calligraphied copies of them to
an easel, and sitting in front of the Portland Public
Library, which then resided almost opposite the end of
Park Street on Congress Street.
You could go there most sunny days and talk about
poetry or culture with Bruce, if you were serious about it.
Weird people hung around him -- drunks, derelicts, art
students, ex-convicts, other poets. An old man named
Raymond Jones came by with his cane from time to time
to talk and tell stories about being a script editor for
Alfred Hitchcock and living in the same building with
Ernest Hemingway. I was astonished once to find out that
a paperback science fiction novel, The Cybernetic Brains,
which I had bought as a teenager was written by Ray.
He once told me in confidence that Bruce's main problem
was money -- you can't produce any effective writing if
you're always worrying about where your next meal
will come from. Bruce was the caretaker of 85 Park Street,
and so he paid a reduced rent, but he had no income apart
from a dollar a week or so selling poems. He bought
groceries for a mysterious old man I never saw,
and apparently the old man gave him food from time to
time. Bruce also became an amateur naturalist and
learned to eat city vegetation, lamb's quarter, and so on.
Once he gathered and boiled a huge pot of periwinkles.
Excavating the meat from a single shell was such trouble
that he quickly turned to gathering mussels instead.
Since Bruce's room served as the editorial and production
office of Contraband magazine, it was a center of activity
that attracted people. I don't know exactly what Jim
Bishop was doing at this time. Occasionally he would
turn up at 85 Park Street for an evening or a few days,
and there would be a flurry of extra energy for talking
about poetry. If Jim happened to be at one of the regular
Sunday morning editorial meetings in Bruce's room, the
discussion would become exceptionally heated. Peter
Kilgore -- who was, with Bruce, the core of Contraband --
would sit with his face sort of prune-colored, looking
down at the floor and waiting patiently for a chance to
make a statement. Bishop responded with great emotion
to everything Bruce said, and it wasn't until years later in
Burlington, Vermont, that I realized how personally he
took all talk of poetry. It was almost the same thing as
talking about his mother or his wife. He would become
expansively delighted or exhaustively upset, so active
and real was it in his imagination.
Holsapple would often be on his feet, slightly bent at the
shoulders, his blond hair like a cloud around his large and
pleasant face, talking distractedly and almost angrily to
us, or more precisely, to the last person who had
commented on either the poems or the subject at hand.
The subject was always the nature of poetry and art,
what constitutes poetry and art, how it does so, and
which poetry or art is more or less successful. True to the
times, the general editorial disposition was very open --
anything could be acceptable for the pages of Contraband,
although a highly subjective judgment of quality was
always involved in editorial decisions. Once we decided
to reject a group of Kenneth Rexroth's translations.
Actually, I argued that including Rexroth would be good
for Contraband 's reputation and therefore for its
The Mind Errant
85 Park St., Portland, Maine, winter 1977