Synapse: Seeking a Nerve Center

Synapse, edited by D.R. Hazelton, ran for four issues out of Berkeley from 1964 to the Poetry Conference the next year.  Synapse slipped under the Clay and Phillips radar despite being a Left Coast mimeo.  It is listed by Butterick as a Beat periodical, and this is especially so for the third and fourth issues, which were edited under the supervision of Gary Snyder.  Jim Thurber’s memoir, “The Rube,” published by Big Bridge, provides great background information on the foundational history of Synapse.  See  Thurber writes: 

Another signature event that triggered crucial and ongoing friendships and, for me, becoming part of a community of poets, was meeting Doug Palmer and Dave Hazelton in a poetry class at S.F. State taught by Mark Linenthal.  The class was either in Spring or Fall of 1964.  I believe it was a Modern Poetry class, although the reading of poems aloud seemed to involve a lot of time—interspersed throughout whatever lectures or discussions Linenthal gave.  It seemed to us young, unbridled riff-raff of poets that the whole conduct of the class was a mirror reflection of the times—the stultifying effect of the Academe and the classroom on the actual experience of poetry.  Ludicrously, the most important thing the entire term was whether or not we could arrange our chairs in a semi-circle so we could see and freely talk to each other or whether the class would take place with the desks in the traditional, authoritarian manner where we could simply look at the back of someone else's head for an entire hour each day.  Doug Palmer and Dave Hazelton were in the class and we became fast friends.  Linenthal didn't care to talk about poets that weren't dead or in the so-called "canon" of modern poetry so our desire to discuss the Beat poets was dismissed.  To counter this, Doug, Dave and I would spontaneously stand up during class and read our own poems aloud—often interrupting his lectures.  Palmer was the most sincere, down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth guy that has ever walked. He believed he should only work with his hands and never for money—only barter.  He had an ancient pickup truck, super-wife Ruth and his young son Tad, and lived in Berkeley.  His penchant for "found objects" meant that he spent hours picking up string, coins, bottles, cans and almost anything you can think of from the sidewalks and "saving" it for other uses.  Hazelton had gone to Oberlin in voice class and met and married Jeanne Lee there.  She won the Downbeat Jazz Singer Poll in '63 and we used to go to some of her concerts.  She was the real deal.  They had a daughter named Naima.
The first issue of Synapse opens with Thurber and includes poems by Hazelton and Palmer.  The appearance in Synapse is Hazelton’s first published appearance.  I would guess that the first issues were run off at S.F. State (Later poems were run off the Wobbly Hall mimeo).  Hazelton and Palmer would soon drop out of the program but the second issue still lists Hazelton as a graduate student at S.F. State.  The mag is clearly part of an effort make their voices be heard outside of the classroom.  The later issues with appearances by Snyder, Welch, Ginsberg and Whalen give further proof of their “desire to discuss the Beat poets.”  They did better than that as Hazelton, Thurber and crew got into discussion with the Beats directly, particularly with Gary Snyder, who took the Synapse group under his wing. 

The story of Synapse is, in fact, the story of circles.  This is particularly true in San Francisco and Berkeley, where it could be argued that the Mimeo Revolution began with the publication of Circle in the late 1940s.  That is in making connections and forming a community.  Synapse began in the attempt to form a circle in the classroom of S.F. State and continued in the search to find a circle that would include them without the strings and obligations of sexual politics.  Spicer, Duncan and Ginsberg were out.  Snyder provided the sense of community they were looking for.  Thurber writes,

We lost the battle with Linenthal over chair arrangement but he sponsored us for student readings at the Student's Union during the noon hour.  The first S.F. Poetry Center Readings were going down and I remember hearing Snyder, James Wright and Leroi Jones around then. Doug, Dave and I all eventually dropped out of the class and began having a lot of “face time’ with the various poets around town who were open to mentoring us.  The most available ones were Snyder, Welch, Whalen, Blaser, Duncan, George Stanley, Jack Spicer, Michael McClure, Rexroth, and Ginsberg when he was in town.  Basically, sexual politics made it easier to pick a mentor.  For some reason Duncan, who mentored so many wonderful poets, was not as available in S.F. as he was in Berkeley—which was like going to a foreign country to me at the time.  Spicer (he was helpful as long as you stayed on the fringe), and Ginsberg were definitely out.  Snyder, Welch and Whalen were the poets we most gravitated toward.  Snyder, by far and away was the best.  His poetics (if he had any) were all-inclusive.  He saw poets as contributing members to the community like carpenters or electricians would be.  He still was an I.W.W. member and went to their leadership to establish a new worker's “category”—a Poet's Union.  He got the paperwork done and we all signed up as card-carrying I.W.W.  “Wobbly Poets.” We each had a little red membership card.  Beyond that we then could use the Wobbly Hall (on Minna St.) for regular poetry readings and the use of their mimeo on which we duplicated hundreds of poems to pass out on the streets.  Besides the Wobbly Hall readings, Snyder had an informal seminar-class we dropped by.  It was his and Palmer's idea for the Peace & Gladness Anthology—which took more hard core work than anyone could have believed at the time.  Even better, Gary went to the organizers of the Berkeley Poetry Conference in '65 and created a “New Poets” reading selecting nine poets from among our commonly known group.  Apparently that was the first time I had heard Gail Dusenbery or met her.  We later became friends, arguing poetry and magic when she lived at 1360 Fell St.
The starpower of these later issues would lead one to believe that Synapse would merit a mention in the Secret Location checklist, particularly given the magazine’s ties to the Berkeley Poetry Conference.  The final issue documents many of the poets involved in the various readings, seminars, and lectures, including several of the Young Poets from the Bay Area, who closed the Conference with a large group reading on July 25, 1965.  In fact, the final issue of Synapse ends with the schedule for the Conference.  Synapse gave a group of poets from the fringe access to backstage passes to the big show.  In a sense, the Young Poets from the Bay Area reading made the Synapse poets’ dreams come true.  Their poems were heard in public by their peers and their idols.  Thurber writes,

The ‘64-65 time slot was our “15 minutes of fame.”  (Of course, many of the poets like Lu Garcia and others have kept on “keeping on”  right up to the present.)  I read someplace with Kyger, Welch & McClure (I think.)  Of course, it was a big reading.  Also the Longshoremen's Hall with Ginsberg, et al. after which the Lovin' Spoonful played live.
Synapse is strictly lo-fi and no-frills, especially so in the first two issues.  A straight-up poetry mag without any manifestos to set it apart.  Maybe this is why it stands outside the Secret Location.  The mag did not speak up for itself like Fuck You or Open Space.  That is not to say there are not paratexts worth a closer look.  By issue three, the magazine begins to develop a voice for itself outside of the poems it prints, such as with advertisements and inserts.  The Conference program is one example.  And it is here that things get really interesting.  But that is a story for another post.



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