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Poet d.a. levy Led a Poetry Revolution from Cleveland

d.a. levy in 1967 [photo / Cleveland Memory Project]

A literary revolution sprang from a cramped Cleveland apartment in the mid-1960s.  It was spearheaded by an unassuming young man who abbreviated his name and signed it  in lower-case letters.  d.a. levy was both a publisher of such soon-to-be-famous writers as Charles Bukowski and creator of his own poetry.  Today, his achievements are all but forgotten.  Except by a few.  

It was his eyes that got to you, people used to say.  Intense, brown eyes  that  saw right through you, as he walked to the front of the coffee shop to read a poem. d.a. levy’s poetry readings, and fledgling publishing business, attracted the attention of poets and intellectuals around the country.  The late Allen Ginsberg remembered levy’s work in a 1995 visit to Cleveland. 

"There are thousands of small presses now...and thousands of poetry readings....." Ginsberg said.  "He was a forerunner of the present renaissance of spoken poetry readings.  It was from the heartland of America and the industrial waste... a young guy, activist, leading a kind of Beat renaissance of poetry readings and publications in his own home town of Cleveland."

In addition to reading poetry, levy used a second-hand mimeograph machine to churn out reams of his own verse, as well as  the early works of cartoonist R. Crumb, Los Angeles writer Charles Bukowski and New York poet Ed Sanders.

"The so-called mimeograph revolution, filled in the void," Sanders said.  "We believed there should not have to be a big march through a submission’s committee in order to get something printed."

In an era of sophisticated photocopiers, desktop publishing, and the Internet, it’s hard to appreciate how much of an impact the “mimeograph revolution” had.  New York writer Mike Golden recently published a collection of d.a.levy’s work, titled the Buddhist 3rd Class Junkmail Oracle.

"The thing that’s really important to realize about levy [is that he] was really an underground press hero all over the world," Golden said.

It was levy’s poetry that first impressed Cleveland lawyer Anthony Walsh, who was a student when he first met this unlikely hero in 1965. 

"He wrote poetry that you could probably characterize in those days as street poetry," said Walsh.  "Not necessarily beat poetry, though it had a beat content.  The beat writers were great heroes of his.   They were all very objective about what they saw.  They didn't pretty it up.  If he was talking about garbage, it was garbage.    If he was talking about dirty streets, they were dirty."

But levy also found beauty in the heart of a rusting city.  From his small  apartment overlooking the industrial Cuyahoga River valley, levy saw more than oil slicks and factory smoke.  levy sometimes used his words to create patterns on the page.   Repetitions of letters, fields of dashes, slashes and dollar signs...which formed playful images of rainshowers .....or.... dark representations of the American flag.  levy also used headlines and pictures clipped from magazines and newspapers to create complex collages that rearranged the work of journalists to reinterpret the reality of the news.

In late 1966, levy made the news when he was indicted by a Cleveland grand jury on obscenity charges, after some of his publications were seized in a raid on a local bookstore.  Several months later, he was arrested again on the charge of contributing to the delinquency of minors at a coffee house poetry reading.

"God, the stuff was so tame by today’s standards, that’s what’s so funny about it," said Susan Prendergast.  Prendergast was one of those minors in levy’s audience 35 years ago.  Stabbing out a cigarette in the crowded smoking section of a contemporary coffee shop, Prendergast rolls her eyes at what upset people about levy’s poetry.

"There might be an occasional “no-no” word  [or it was known that ] someone was having an affair in one of the stories or poems, but, it was so tame," she said.

Letters of support for the incarcerated poet poured in from across the country.  To help defray levy’s legal expenses, friends organized a benefit featuring Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders.

"I loved him, I thought he was a genius," Sanders said.  "I came out here and we did our thing, like we always did: we fly in, do your benefit and fly out.  So, meanwhile, he was left with the karma.   And so,  a year later, he copped a plea - he hated to.  Copping a plea was like oily sawdust in his mouth."

levy pled “no contest” to the charges of contributing to the delinquency of  minors and paid a $200 fine.  But the incident apparently exacted a deeper toll.  On November 25 th, 1968, d.a. levy was found dead in his apartment.   Some say he was set-up by the police.   But friend and former roommate Russell Salomon doesn’t think so.

"He had a .22 rifle on the wall of his room," Salomon said.   "And I said what’s that for?  And he said, 'that’s my insurance against great work.'  I said what do you mean?  He said 'if I don’t produce something good today I’m going to kill myself.'  I said, you’re kidding.  He said, 'no, I’m not kidding.'" 

News reports spoke about the death of  the “Cleveland Hippie Figure”.   Then, d.a.levy dropped from the headlines.

Anthony Walsh shook his head.

"A terrible waste," he said.  "Like Keats, Byron, even Mozart, who were so young. What could he have produced?   What could he have accomplished in the last 30 years?" 

Yet somehow, a younger generation has managed to find d.a. levy.  Thurston Moore co-founded the band Sonic Youth, that emerged in the 1980s  from the same lower eastside New York neighborhood that had nurtured Ed Sanders in the 60s, and Allen Ginsberg in the 50s.  Moore first heard of  levy through a writer friend.

"Being on tour with Sonic Youth and being able to go to bookstores in college towns, looking in poetry it was like punk rock that was really attractive to me," Moore said.

levy’s life inspired Moore to write “Small Flowers Crack Concrete”.

"It worked with the theme of our last record which was just about the poets life, and I really wanted to reference levy," he said.

In the end, writer Mike Golden thinks that the pain expressed in d.a. levy’s work was not unique.  If you took the time to look into his intense brown eyes, you saw yourself.


David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.