Darlene Fife, Portraits From Memory: New Orleans in the Sixties,
New Orleans: Mesechabe, The Surregional Press, 2000, illustrated, $12.  mesechabe@hotmail.com

Copyright by SuZi, 1/3/03

Small press publishing is more of an endeavor of honor than of financial reward. This is true especially in our current times when large American publishing houses are owned by megacorporations and companies home based outside the country; and whose intent is culture as a whole is one of fiscal profit rather than aesthetic value. So, it is especially noble that the small presses who do chose to continue, to print on paper and run the gauntlets of distribution and marketing, who keep making interesting publications available to those of us who love them; and even more impressive are the presses who publish without the institutional support of some university. Such a press is Mesechabe/The Surregional Press, which has published the old fashioned way since 1988.
  The Surregional Press published its magazine, Mesechabe, and an occasional book relevant to its unstated mission of giving recognition to those for whom it is certainly due but not necessarily forthcoming. One such book is Darlene Fife's Portrait From Memory: New Orleans in the Sixties. Written in an almost sparse, straightforward style, Fife's text is a memoir in which the usual main character of the memoir--the author--is hardly present. Fife's presence in the text is one of witness, of record-keeper of the events of that time. The text itself is organized around four primary chapters whose focus is upon four people: people who made things happen. Each chapter is then subdivided into her eye witnessed accounts of relevant history.
  The true main character of Fife's account is the small press publication NOLA Express , which was distributed at street level in the late sixties and early seventies. NOLA Express was, at various times, involved in legal wrangling regarding both their method of distribution and the newspaper's editorial content. NOLA Express published both literature and social criticism -- Fife lists d.a.levy, Alta, Claude Pelieu, William Wantling, as well as the then-unknown writers Lyn Lifshin and Charles Bukowski --alongside a column by Rich Mangelsdorf on the small press and the work of various artists: it was the art which brought NOLA Express itself under indictment.
  Although Fife's comments about the mingling of politics and art/literature in a small press publication are brief, they are still currently relevant:

  NOLA Express was, so far as I know, the only publication that was a member of both UPS (Underground Press Syndicate) and COSMEP [ Committee of Small Magazine Editors and Publishers. Fife was a director] I thought there should be more interconnection between the underground press and the literary magazines, so I invited Tom Forcade, who started UPS and later High Times , to speak. COSMEP members tended to be  a stodgy lot keeping LITERATURE separate from politics. (p5)

  Interestingly, Fife's text is illustrated with both reproductions of the art published in NOLA Express , as well as photographs relevant to the memoir structure. Typically, large house publications will include a clump of photographs at intervals in a biography or similar  publication. Occasionally, individual photographs will be set into a chapter's frontspiece and even more rarely into the text itself. Surregional Press has laid out Fife's text with illustrations on nearly every page; keeping , perhaps, a similar visual impression to that of NOLA Express itself. Thus, Fife's memoir readers are treated to not only the photograph for which they were indicted, but a reproduction of a page containing the poem "The Vendors" by Robert Head; the controversial cover drawing by Glenn Miller, which features the head of a penis dripping a spider; as well as a cartoon by G Warren Weissman showing a smoking cop shaking the hand of a bearded, fuzzy-haired and spectacled hippie with graphics which read, "Undesirable element, I presume? Fascist pig, I believe."  That Surregional Press would reprint such artwork in our times, when many other publishers are clutching at the straws of illusionary safety, credits editor D. Formento for realizing that the issues of that time are still worthy of consideration.
  And it is the issues brought up in Fife's memoir which current publications are often bursting with haste to bury: war, the social impact of art, the mixing of art and social reality, how individuals can have influence on their locale and their times. Each and every one of these themes, as well as other illuminated briefly in Fife's text, are what most readers will not find readily available at their local newsstands and megalithic bookstores. Fife concerns herself with true grassroots publication: the story of one journal. It is fitting that another press, grassroots and from the same region, would publish a text honoring its literary parent. It is honorable and rare that such a press would do so just when we need to remember this history and just when corporate publishing is so intent on forgetting.

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