Publication of the Io Anthology: Literature, Interviews, and Art from the Seminal Interdisciplinary Journal is an exciting event. I’ve been intrigued with Io ever since coming across a used issue some years ago. This was the Olson-Melville Sourcebook, The New Found Land issue #22 at the now long gone Acorn Books on Polk St in San Francisco. I remember marveling over the manner in which the contents were a mixture of critical and creative work ever so loosely tied together in so far as they responded to the works of 20th century poet Charles Olson and 19th century novelist Herman Melville no matter how tangentially—for instance, I wondered: “what are satellite images of the planet Jupiter doing in here?”. The issue was clearly in large part inspired by Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, his infamously reworked dissertation on Melville wherein the creative and the critical are so thoroughly blurred there is no clear categorical choice for where the writing falls between the two. As with Ishmael, the contents of the Olson-Melville Sourcebook straddle various disciplines: poetry, history, biology, archaeology, astronomy, et cetera; the editorial outlook quite obviously interdisciplinary by nature and design.
Io was realized during the 1960s when small press poetry publishing flourished arm-in-arm with broader counter-cultural movements of the time. From its beginning the journal embraced the tantalizing possibilities offered up by many an alternative history and/or course of thought that was then quickly gaining wide popularity. As Io editor and publisher Richard Grossinger remarks, “Io reflected our coming of age during a big-time shift in the cultural gestalt.” Grossinger describes the eclectic and rather uneven mixture of material that sets Io apart stylistically from many similarly oriented journals of the same era:
“Our contents were fly-by-night, flawed, and uneven, bringing together works in progress, bare notions, uncertain melodies hummed and abruptly broken off, pastiches and bricolage, specializing in the regional and vernacular, plus occasional classics and “bests” of 1968 (or 1972). If you look at Io‘s back issues, what is striking is not their polished cantos or all-stars strutting boss goods; it is the delightful hodgepodge of a mud pie in progress, an early spring recipe for dandelion wine.”
Although a roughly contemporary publication such as Clayton Eshelman’s Caterpillar, along with his later project Sulfur, shares similar interests and concerns, taking equal inspiration from alternative traditions outside of the literary mainstream, it shies away from the “fly-by-night, flawed, and uneven” characteristics of Io noted by Grossinger. It is these very elements which set Io apart and make reading it so remarkably unique an experience. There’s a forward looking, holistic embrace of any and all possible routes to previously unchartered knowledge: the creative is presented alongside the scientific; dialogue ensues between and across disciplines within its pages.
Io began shortly after Grossinger met poet Lindy Hough while both were still undergraduates in Massachusetts. They took inspiration from conversations with poet Robert Kelly during visits to his home in New York where he taught at Bard. Hough and Grossinger quickly became life partners in both marriage and editing/publishing. In Hough’s words: “A look back at Io from the perspective of 2015 shows that Richard and I were not only mapping our era and laying groundwork for understanding this material ourselves, but shaping an ethos that would morph into the publishing entity North Atlantic Books by the mid-seventies.” Io laid much of the groundwork for the subsequent editorial and publishing work the couple continues with their press to this day. As noted on the press’s homepage: “North Atlantic Books (NAB) is an independent, nonprofit publisher committed to a bold exploration of the relationships between mind, body, spirit, and nature. Founded in Vermont, in 1974, NAB aims to nurture a holistic view of the arts, sciences, humanities, and healing.” These same concerns are seen to be readily at play throughout Io’s near four decade run.
Grossinger and Hough have contributed separate introductions to the anthology, providing their own recollection of key periods in Io’s long ride as well as reflecting upon specific contributors and themed issues over the years. Hough’s anecdotal explanation of the journal’s title reveals at least partial reasoning for the inclusion of the Jupiter pics I found so puzzling in the Olson-Melville Sourcebook (I had simply settled with the misassumption they were intended to be emblematic of some sort of analogy between NASA and Ahab’s chase for the White Whale):
“Io was named after the moon of Jupiter—our cosmos would be a small ball of unknown energy circling around a large planet, which is kind of how we felt—small but very there, circling around more established planets. Io is the most volcanically active body in the solar system, its surface is splotched with lava lakes and floodplains of liquid rock.”
Similar to its namesake, Io has served as a “volcanically active” venue for the couple’s own exploration and practice of literary endeavors. Hough’s poetry appeared regularly and several of her poems are included here; as are excerpts from many of Grossinger’s essays and interviews. Grossinger utilized Io as a sort of testing ground for material he later developed into full length studies and published in book form.
Continuing with the close intimacy Grossinger and Hough brought to individual issues of Io the couple’s now grown children each contribute forewords to the anthology. Their son Robin Grossinger describes how his nine-year-old son Leo, “thumbs through the Ios spread out on the floor around my desk, for longer than I would expect, and says “Cool. A little weird. But cool.”” While their daughter, the well-known artist and film-maker Miranda July, recalls her teenage discovery in the 1990s of the literary magazines piled on the “Small Press” shelves at Moe’s Books in Berkeley and how “the best ones were from the 60s and 70s” proving reminiscent of “the Velvet Underground, and Nico, and Edgie Sedgwick.” She bought an issue of Clayton Eshelman’s Caterpillar only to be surprised when her parents “gently pointed towards the part of their library where Caterpillar and a million other literary magazines from the 60’s and 70’s lived. They had been traded for issues of Io.” July immediately “began to pore through the musty shelves that used to be only creepy” quickly realizing “Io was the most precisely relevant” title in the collection.
Most relevant and exciting to July were “interviews with filmmaker Stan Brakhage, original artwork by Jean Cocteau, and radical poetry (“Semen / shit / paper / kleenex / snot” writes Paul Blackburn).” This was in addition to poems by her mother, writings and artwork by her father. She exclaims: “Io was punk—a rebellion against the mainstream, their families, an airless literary tradition.” And it offered “the only thing that was useful to me: the idea of self-made magic.” She’s carried on throughout her life developing her own artistic path carrying a key lesson learned from the work her parents did on Io: “the great power in believing in those nearest to you, your friends and your friends’ friends.” (xvi) Ultimately, Io is in large part a celebration of the “self-made magic” developed in and around the ranks of such artistic camaraderie.
While the anthology is not without its downsides as there are several obvious typos and other blemishes it is nonetheless as thorough a glimpse into a fascinating journal as any reader would hope for. When the goal is grand some loose ends often are left unveiled. As Grossinger explains “Io was forever about holism and linking things up, even if it was rough-hewn and overreaching.” The focus with Io is upon the brilliance of wonder revealed by consideration of possibilities beyond our common ken of knowledge. It’s admirable how the journal never backed away from encouraging cross-disciplinary revelation, going well beyond any point of disagreement. Grossinger’s interview with Carl Sagan is a case in point. Where Grossinger would love nothing better than to get Sagan to join his ecstatic embrace of cosmological power in our everyday lives, ever the rational scientific mind, Sagan will have none of it:
Grossinger: […] we too are cosmic beings; our material, the atoms and molecules of our bodies, have been part of other remote and very different bodies….
Sagan: You mean recently? You know, the calcium atoms in your bones were made in the interior of a red giant star, so in some sense the material inside of you started out at quite a different place in time, but which red giant star it was just doesn’t influence you at all. An atom has no recollection of what star it was built up in.
Grossinger: […] something comes through.
Sagan: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. All calcium atoms are identical.
This exchange is one of many pithy moments this anthology contains, reminder of however uneven the yet ever wondrous exploration of connections between creativity and scientific knowledge contained in these pages is much too rarely entertained.