Cocaine, Occupy, and drag: The last book edited by the head of the Grove Press empire
The last disciple of the Grove Press empire, Rami Shamir, recounts finishing his book with a dying Barney Rosset, the publisher of Naked Lunch, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Tropic of Cancer.
AUTHOR: Dale Eisinger
PHOTOGRAPH: Ethan Hill/Contour by Getty Images
Rami Shamir was couch surfing in New York City and wearing a borrowed suit. In his hands, he says, he had a copy of a manuscript of a novel he wrote called Train to Pokipse, and five dollars, which he used for a cab. He was taking the book he'd worked on for five years to Barney Rosset, in hopes of getting published.
Barney Rosset is one of those, "the guy behind the guy" kind of guys. If you don't know the name of the founder and publisher of Grove Press, one of America's most iconic alternative imprints, you've certainly heard of the writers he brought to the American literary public: William S. Burroughs, Harold Pinter, Pablo Neruda, Jean Genet, most of the Beats, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and Samuel Beckett, who has been represented by the publishing house since the American debut of his play, Waiting for Godot, in 1954.
So, Rami borrowed a suit.
It's not as if Rami hadn't achieved success as a writer before. He was a published and produced playwright by the time he was in his teens. But Shamir, a Bard graduate, now 34, who mostly supported himself by waiting tables and bouncing from couch to couch in his native New York City—was going out on a limb here. It was his first novel, and Barney was getting old. At this point, the Grove Press publisher was not accepting many unsolicited manuscripts, knowing as he did that he was nearing the end of his life. Rosset would die in February of 2012, at the age of 89.
But this was back around 2008. The effects of the financial crisis had yet to sink in for most industries. The publishing world still had a glimmer of hope. Rami had been writing the book for a while now, shaking off a few years of club kid coke binges and nursing a broken heart. That all comes across in the book, as he has a hard time separating "taking notes" and "living it" in his writing process.
"And then I had a serious suicide attempt," Rami says. "When I came out of the hospital, I decided to just go away and really write this book, to sit down and... do it. So when I met Jack… that's really the beginning."
It was in that drug-fueled New York club scene revival where neon dancefloors led Rami to Jack Doroshow—otherwise known as Mother Flawless Sabrina. Sabrina, like Barney, is herself a counterculture figure, the subject of the 1968 Frank Simon-directed documentary, The Queen. That tape is a relic of formative drag queen contests—and the bitter infighting that ensued. The film also happened to be distributed by Rosset at one time. Jack makes his way into the book, of course. And it was at his well-appointed Upper East Side apartment that Rami finally drafted his novel.
An American literary imprint that has published some of the most iconic avant-garde works of literature, theater, and poetry of the 20th century.
Founded in 1951, it was acquired by Barney Rossett that same year and turned into an alternative book press. Under Rossett, Grove published most of the American Beats, among them Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, for the first time, and introduced French authors, including Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Genet, and Eugène Ionesco, to an American audience.
In 1954, it released Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot, after it had been rejected by multiple mainstream outlets, becoming his official publisher in the U.S.
During the 1960s, Grove also gave voice to civil rights leaders and revolutionaries such as Malcolm X and Che Guevara. Throughout this period, Rossett led the charge against obscenity censorship, successfully lobbying to publish a number banned or contested titles, most notably, D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, and Burroughs' Naked Lunch.
So here was Rami, feeling kind of desperate, in his borrowed suit, manuscript in hand. He had gotten Barney's address from Jack. There had even been a brief phone call from Barney himself: "Yes! Come over with your manuscript." Rosset took to the writing. Though, initially, he had offered to help publish Pokipse, he would eventually come to act as its proxy editor. By the time the book was in print (a couple years later) Rosset went so far as to call the novel, "[...] a Catcher in the Rye for the new century, and Rami Shamir is an authentic literary voice for a new lost generation."
From the outset, the book is astonishing in a number of ways. There's a timeless momentum to the words, as if Rami inherited the Style Guide of The American Counterculture, a spirit bluntly similar to Rosset's previous authors. It's a voice recognizable for an insistent maleness, and, more so, a basic understanding of the human condition. There is a deep poetics of the heart that countervails the graffiti-tinged, highly explicit prose.
"Barney was interested in books that had sex and politics," Rami says, "and sex was essentially politics anyway. He wanted to take these books and put them into the world and change the world through them."
Moreover, Rami says, it's the love story that drew Barney to his book, an attractive quality that Henry Miller also possessed.
"I never knew that that was why he published Tropic of Cancer, something really… essentially, pedestrian," Rami says. "His claim was, he read it and it reminded him of [a] relationship he had with this girl, who he madly fell in love with, and she broke his heart. So he found Miller and he related, and he saw the same thing in Pokipse."
Others saw something deeper. "Rami is just a brilliant word mechanic," says Doroshow. "That's what Barney saw in him, and it's what I saw in him. He was just such a talented writer, which was obvious when I started reading even his early work."
Though Barney was now acting as an editor, and Rami was working for the stalwart online journal Barney ran, Evergreen Review, it was another chance encounter that led to the book getting inked to the page. The New York-based artist Adam Void was working at a copy shop on the Upper East Side when Rami came in to photocopy a flier for a garage sale that was to take place at Jack's house, a few blocks away.
"I saw a very desperate, very odd individual making photocopies and getting very frustrated with the machine," Void says. "I'm a collector of strange people. He's turned out to be one of the best acquisitions, of these strange people."
Rami Shamir and Barney Rosset, taken by Astrid Myers Rosset at their loft on Fourth Avenue. Photo courtesy of Astrid Myers Rosset.
Notable works published by Grove Press
Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett, 1954
The Maids and Death Watch: Two Plays, Jean Genet, 1954
Threepenny Novel, Bertolt Brecht, 1956
Amédée, The New Tenant, Victims of Duty, Eugène Ionesco, 1958
The Subterraneans, Jack Kerouac, 1958
The Voyeur, Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1958
Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs, 1959
St. Petersburg, Andrei Bely, 1959
100 Selected Poems, e.e. cummings, 1959
The Americans, Robert Frank, 1959
Lady Chatterley's Lover, D.H. Lawrence, 1959
Nadja, André Breton, 1960
Hiroshima Mon Amour, Marguerite Duras, 1961
Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, Henry Miller, 1961
The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon, 1961
Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges, 1962
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X with Alex Haley, 1965
Great Rebel: Che Guevara in Bolivia, Luis J. Gonzales, 1969
Publisher Barney Rosset and his wife Astrid Myers pose for a portrait at his home in New York, December 2008. Photo by Ethan Hill.
Void had been involved in the publishing world for a number of years, and would end up releasing the first printing of the first edition of Rami's book.
"It's poetic in a time that writing is not poetry anymore," Void says. "That lack of pretension and the ability to relate to a general audience without dumbing down the quality of the work is something that's been lost. He writes literature. That combination of the brutality of life with the beauty of life."
It's not that Rami and Barney didn't think about pushing the book into the world using the traditional publishing-house route. It was that that world had changed so much after the recession that it didn't seem tenable. Rami's writing posed an outlier to the sterilized, minimalist MFA-aesthetic fiction that pervaded American novels for the decade or two preceding. So Void would use his own small press, Underground Editions, to put Pokipse into print—limiting its release to the symbolic number of 911 copies.
"Without Adam, there would have been no book because, in the end, he really put up money to get it published," Rami says. "And money talks. When everyone else was really supportive, no one was going to be the publisher."
Within that turmoil that was the financial collapse, the Occupy Wall Street movement was rising up. It's now the fall of 2011, a time when unrest stirred in the form of an extended encampment in New York City's Zuccotti Park. Void was the one who introduced Rami to the goings-on at Zuccotti. He took the writer there before the movement had fully metastasized. Rami says he fell in love with what was happening there.
"Rami really kind of never left," Void recounted. "I would come back periodically and stay with him. Basically, from that day forward, Rami was there, until well [after] the exodus from the park."
Still in semi-homeless mode, this was where Rami would spend the next few months, creating a through-line of spirit he felt from Jack and Barney. Rami says he fell in love with the community there.
"I was one of these people that were instrumental in keeping the park and the people that lived there together," Rami says.
While Rami was at Occupy, The New York Post made him a footnote to a series of articles. In those clips, a mother of four from Florida is made an example for choosing to occupy Zuccotti Park in lieu of her matronly duties back home (at a point, the tabloid insinuated she was using the opportunity to have an affair). The coverage became so reviled that The Daily Beast stepped in to try and right the ship.
How did Rami fit in? He had been billed as the supposed love interest of the Florida mom, though he wasn't the focus of the narrative and, eventually, receded into the lore of the camp. Still, had anyone at The Post simply cracked the spine of Pokipse, they'd know within pages that Rami only slept with men (this is conveyed in very graphic detail in the book). Were the tabloid to acknowledge Rami's sexuality, their entire story would have collapsed. Rami is not quoted, at all, even in the Daily Beast coverage.
Rosset himself was no stranger to sexual taboo. This is the guy who went to bat, in historically relevant legal battles, for the right to publish Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence in a series of landmark free speech and censorship battles, the effects of which are still being felt today.
And yet, as Barney was nearing the end of his life, and the book was a couple months away from its first edition, Occupy was breaking up, in November of 2011.
"Luckily Occupy ended when it ended," Rami says, "because then I was at least not as mesmerized, and I did spend the last few months of his life with him and I gave him a copy of the book… and he saw the book, and the last image I have of him is him reading the book...the last time I saw him before he died."
"Rami was coming by a lot and we got to be very friendly," Astrid Rosset, Barney's widow says. "Over the years, Rami just became a part of our family."
"Who would've thought that could ever happen?" Rami says. "But the interesting thing is as you get more comfortable and all these things happen… Barney and I had a close relationship the last four years of his life, to the point I became like a fifth kid."
Barney died in February 2012. The problem then was, how to distribute the book. It was left to the protege, now without his mentor. Rami says old-school face-to-face tactics made a successful nationwide distribution of the 911 copies of the first edition possible. He drove across the United States in the summer of 2012, reaching out directly to independent booksellers. In the past couple years, given the state of the publishing industry at that point, Rami felt he had no choice to handle things himself. Moreover, considering that Rami decided to boycott online bookselling giant Amazon.com, he had to get up and go.
"Those tactics I learned," Rami says, "the spirit was Occupy, but the strategy was all Barney. How did they sell books back in the day? They went to the bookseller, they met with the bookseller—it was a human connection. It wasn't 'go online and send an email.'"
and Mad Men
In Season 1, Episode 3, Joan Holloway returns a borrowed copy of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover; the book's first U.S. publisher was Grove Press.
Season 2, Episode 13 is titled "Meditations in an Emergency" after a book of poetry by Frank O'Hara published by Grove Press in 1957; Don Draper reads the book after being challenged by a colleague ("You wouldn't like it."). The episode reportedly boosted sales of the book by 218%.
Season 4, Episode 11 features Eric Berne's Games People Play, another Grove Press best-seller.
In Season 5, Episode 9, Don holds an issue of Evergreen Showcard, Grove's short-lived off-Broadway theatrical magazine.
In Season 7, Episode 6, Don mentions watching I Am Curious (Yellow), distributed by Grove Press in the US. (Don: "[I'm] still scandalized." Peggy: "Of course Megan would want to see a dirty movie.”).
In 2010, Grove/Atlantic (the successor company to Grove Press) published the memoir of fictional Roger Sterling: Sterling's Gold: Wit and Wisdom of an Ad Man.
After all this time, it's still a bit of a mystery as to why Barney took so strongly to Rami. New York-based filmmaker Sandy Gotham Meehan was working on a project involving Barney near the end of his life. She says that Rami had "charisma to burn."
"Barney had someone who was electric in his prose and his take on life and his authenticity," continues Meehan. "I had a feeling he felt very fatherly towards Rami."
Astrid agrees: "Because he treated writers as important people... and maybe at times [even] in the sense of a father figure. And I know Rami took Barney's death very hard."
"I [really] loved Barney a lot," Rami says. "He was my friend… a close friend. When you were hanging out with him and you were friends, he had nothing but respect for you as a human being. He had no class hang-ups, he had no race hang-ups, he had no gender hang-ups... I want to make sure I can prolong that legacy, and others can do it too… like, change the world through where it was going with Barney, a cooler sexier world rather than a lame-ass world."
Recently, Rami has successfully financed a new printing of the book through Kickstarter. The new edition of the book will be 1984 copies. For more information (like how to get your copy), visit www.traintopokipse.com