Wednesday, December 05, 2018

The Rock Chalk Cafe

An article about the literary scene in Lawrence, Kansas in the 70s by Stephen Bunch

The Rock Chalk Cafe

In yesterday’s news, linked above, comes word that a storied Lawrence, Kansas, watering hole may be about to vanish from the north edge of the University of Kansas campus. Among its distinctions the Rock Chalk Café, now known as The Crossing, holds a place in local literary history.

Edward Dorn's poem "The Cosmology of Finding Your Spot" celebrated the Rock Chalk and its denizens ( ) and was published (typos and all) as a broadside in connection with a reading in support of the Draft Resisters League in 1969. The reading occurred just across the street from the Rock Chalk, at the United Campus Christian Fellowship building. As I recall, Robert Bly also read that evening. Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Galway Kinnell, and Diane Wakoski also came through Lawrence that spring.

George Kimball, poet, sportswriter, candidate for Douglas County sheriff in 1970, presided at the Rock Chalk. He wore a revolver in a holster on his hip and had one eye. His campaign slogan was that he would keep an eye on crime. (George was known to drop his glass eye into his glass of beer when holding forth at the Rock Chalk.) He lost the election, but went on to become a respected sports writer ( ). A fellow traveler write-in candidate was elected justice of the peace and announced he would marry gay couples. The state of Kansas quickly eliminated retroactively the office of justice of the peace.

Around the corner and upstairs from the Rock Chalk was the Tansy book store, John Moritz proprietor. John was a printer, poet, and publisher, whose Tansy Press produced a magazine, occasional broadsides but more importantly several books by Kenneth Irby. The story of Tansy Press, complete with a bibliography, can be found here:

The book store stocked small press publications seldom found elsewhere: important literary magazines of the times, such as Caterpillar, kayak, Io; books by such publishers as Four Seasons, Frontier Press, City Lights, Black Sparrow Press, Totem/Corinth; and books by better-known but still niche publishers such as New Directions and Grove. The so-called underground newspapers of the day, both local and national, were available there.

Tansy also was the site for occasional poetry readings. The audience would occupy the few folding chairs but mostly sat on the floor. A gallon jug of cheap burgundy sometimes circulated while local writers regaled the listeners with everything from poems to songs to letters to mother to a shopping list found in the pocket of the reader’s blue jeans.

In the early '80s Allen Ginsberg was the honored guest at a large lunch gathering at the Rock Chalk (by then it may have become the Crossing, I don’t remember). At lunch he signed my old copy of Grist magazine, edited and published by John Fowler out of the old Abington Bookshop, which was formerly just down the street from the Rock Chalk. This particular issue of Grist contained an excerpt from "Wichita Vortex Sutra." This gathering was videotaped by philosophy professor Don Brownstein. Many years later I tracked down Don, who had left the university to become a hedge fund broker in New York City, to ask what had become of the tape. He vaguely recalled making it but, sadly, didn’t know if it had survived his moves over the years.

After that lunch, Ginsberg joined Kemp Houck, English professor at the time (before dropping out of academia to become an anti-nuke activist), and me that afternoon to record an interview about his memories and thoughts regarding Charles Olson. Kemp was an Elizabethan scholar who had become obsessed with Olson’s life and work. The interview was held at the kitchen table in my house at 1005 Rhode Island, but we had to persuade Ginsberg to leave the Hammond organ in the dining room, at which he seemed content to play endlessly. At the table, we drank apricot nectar and Ginsberg recounted a party with Olson and the Beatles in London. At one point he asked the time and said he needed to go to “Mr. Burroughs’” house, which was nearby. I thought it charming somehow that he referred to his old friend so formally. Unfortunately, Kemp managed inadvertently to erase much of the tape. Somewhere in my files is a transcript of the tail end of the interview. That evening Ginsberg read to a standing room only audience, probably around 800 or so, in the Kansas Union Ballroom, also just down the street from the Rock Chalk Cafe. William Burroughs and Andrei Codrescu were in attendance. Steven Taylor, of the Fugs, played guitar.

The Rock Chalk Café was a center of culture, celebration, and commotion during the Vietnam era. An energy radiated from it every bit as perceptible as the sound of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising" thumping from its jukebox, which I could hear from my future (and current) wife’s bedroom window a half block away down Oread Avenue in 1969.

Stephen Bunch lives and writes in Lawrence, Kansas, where he received the 2008 Langston Hughes Award for Poetry from the Lawrence Arts Center and Raven Books. His poems can be found in Autumn Sky Poetry, The Externalist, The Literary Bohemian, Fickle Muses, IthacaLit and Umbrella. From 1978 to 1988, he edited and published Tellus, a little magazine that featured work by Victor Contoski, Edward Dorn, Jane Hirshfield, Donald Levering, Denise Low, Paul Metcalf, Edward Sanders, and many others. After a fifteen-year hibernation, he awoke in 2005 and resumed writing. Preparing to Leave, his first gathering of poems, was published in 2011 and Transmissions from Bone House, his second, in 2016. Bunch can be found on the Map of Kansas Literature near L. Frank Baum and Gwendolyn Brooks. [He reports that property values tanked when he moved into the neighborhood.