ROOTDRINKER NARRATIVE TRADITION
The idea for Rootdrinker began in 1973. I had embarked on one of my life’s great adventures, hitch-hiking across country to San Francisco, moving on to Honolulu, as I’d actually thought I could make my way around the world and then returning to the northeast to live once again with my parents in Fort Johnson, New York. My notebooks filled with poems and journal entries I was also faced with the need to meet economic livelihood on the road to more creative living. That task proved to be a lifelong one but in this chapter it meant moving back to my college town, Canton, New York and enrolling in St. Lawrence University’s Masters in Counseling program. I was still finishing that degree, working in the university bookstore, and living with friends Joel and Carolyn Swart, when I began the labor that resulted in the first issue of Rootdrinker (September 1975). That I was still writing, mostly poetry some manuscript revisions, and was influenced by the anti-war, anti-establishment movements that succeeded in loosening up straight-laced WASP America. I was also small town enough that the clarian call of the Back-to-the Landers, organic farmers and braless earth mothers had much appeal. Rootdrinker was meant to be a local small press source for presenting the art and culture right around us. Early contributor , the late poet James Price and I spent many hours in his office talking about culture, the urban centered species we were both more familiar with and the rural make-do-with-what-you-have kind that Rootdrinker celebrated. My poetry Professor Albert Glover was available and in addition to his duties to the English Department at St. Lawrence he was practicing his own form of subsistence living with his wife Pat and kids on Standing Rock Road.
After four issues, influenced by Harvard Art Major turned organic farmer Doug Jones of Birdsfoot Farm, the magazine began reaching for a larger readership, becoming more topical, pushing a bio-regional and environmental outlook for the St. Lawrence Border Country. Local News as if People Mattered was one tag line. There were the great protests against 765KV powerlines and nuclear power plants on the St. Lawrence River, a battle that drew most of us in. Rootdrinker was way ahead of the curve on food and farm policy. The magazine now featured inclusion of the Mohawks from Akwesasne, New England Organic Farmers and Co-op Marketers, Local Homestead pioneers in Alternative Energy, Upstate people and groups that shared some of the vision, folklore (before and after I worked as fieldwork coordinator for the Center for the Study of North Country Folklife), and poets. In that by-gone era, poets actually found Rootdrinker. I received many an introduction to other writers, through their works being sent to the Canton, New York P.O. Box. I also did a fair job of exchanging Rootdrinker with other small press and alternative editors. Albert Glover kindly contributed work and literary contacts. Ellen Rocco joined the staff, provided information and opinions, covered the Olympic Games in Lake Placid, learned to sell advertising. She already knew how to work for almost nothing.
Along with owner operator (and poet) Dale Hobson, artist printer Paul Davison, and graphic craftsman Dave Baker, I was one of four people with a key to the backdoor of the Raquette River Printshop in Potsdam, New York. The shop was open to me twenty-four hours a day and I was often there late at night to early in the morning. From issue 5 to issue14, Rootdrinker attained “legendary” status with print runs in the thousands and hundreds of outlets through-out a wide, wide area of sparsely populated rural New York. “I see Rootdrinker ate another car.” my friends told me more than once. Another joke was how many people used my liberal policy on staff (unpaid for the most part) appointments to pad their resumes and even have it result in a “real job”. When the Raquette River Printshop got caught in a building fire on its street that was the beginning of the end although the next few years continued the art, poetry and small press publishing, mostly through Paul Davison’s newspace press. Paul worked out of the unheated part of his house in Parishville, New York. That era also produced some interesting and quality work. I however had exhausted my resources and so jobless and reluctantly, I moved back to Fort Johnson and got on with work and more education.
There were some Saratoga Springs years, when I lived downtown and probably reached a new height in national exposure. Rootdrinker issue 15 (1985) and issue 16 (1989) were more selective in their poetry orientation and were designed for a national distribution. I was one of the people to talk to in New York State about bio-regionalism. BIGPOWWOW the 17th issue of course has a story all its own. It does have a national vision like the Saratoga Springs issues and is a co-edited work with Stephen Lewandowski. Every publication I have done represents a synthesis but BIGPOWWOW does even more so. Included are five poets who were in the 1989 issue, some of them, and others, who appeared in even earlier issues, Stephen brought in some poets. We’ve included some of the Normanskill poets and a couple of others not even born when the first issue of Rootdrinker appeared.
There are three hats, the poet hat, the editor hat, and the publisher hat. To my way of thinking they are all the same hat. It has only been in the last three years when I emerged from my dormat state and discovered desktop publishing. If I didn't have an overriding philosophy of what I was doing (and saying) as a poet and writer then I would have remained silent. As I introduced myself to the community of writers that make up the Albany Region of New York State what I decided was to return to Rootdrinker's bio-regional roots and not just to find local artists, musicians, writers and crafters but to encourage their interests not only in their own work but in a community of work.
Local Poets: A Revolutionary Strategy for Saving Planet Earth. I continue to try and be true to small is beautiful, be here now, it is not what you know, it is where you know. Context is I believe one of the most important elements of poetry (really all the cultural arts) and "local" is not only the best context to find yourself in, it is the healthest. Local poets in your watershed were put there for higher purpose, There for you to rub against like riverstone in a stream, your unique stream. A rabbit habitates your watershed. You might want a zebra, only to freeze in your colorful zebra skin when rabbit gives you a warmer coat.
I have an appreciation for discipline. Thoreau's "poets lead disciplined lives" and also Charles Olson in his A Plan for a Curriculum of the Soul,
Poets as such, that is disciplined lives
not history or for any "art" reasons
When Albert Glover saw my first (2007) offering from Benevolent Bird Press he said it was "lacking ambition" which he meant as a complement, I immediately took it as one and now I've taken "lacking ambition" as a koan. If not for "ambition' then what you do is replaced by the work that you are most fit to do. It is at the point where other poets call me on it like when I get spouting off about my new Australian connections they say, "Is that really that lacking ambition thing, Bird?" No it is the local. it is the local that is important, I say.
--- Alan "Bird" Casline
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