Edward Sanders: Poetic Pacifist Up Next

Ed Sanders at St. Marks Bookshop, NYC.

Ed Sanders, the irrepressible poet and pacifist, rises early every morning, reads CounterPunch, writes verses and works on his glyphs (rhymes with cliffs) which combine images and texts and that have a long history that goes back to the ancient Egyptians and perhaps before them. A student of both Greek and Latin with an innate curiosity about U.S. and world history, Sanders is a kind of walking/talking glyph who receives dozens and dozens of requests for interviews to talk about Charles Manson, the Fugs (the band which he cofounded in 1964 with Tuli Kupferberg), sex, drugs, Jimi Hendrix, Neal Cassady and much more.

If he wanted to, he could talk about the past all day and all night, for days on end and not deplete his vast storehouse of memories and recollections. He could also talk almost without end about his own life: growing up in racist Missouri, running the Peace Eye Bookstore on the Lower East Side, trying to stop the deployment of American nuclear submarines, publishing the magazine, Fuck You/ A Magazine of the Arts, protesting the use of toxic chemicals like glyphosate to destroy weeds around telephone poles and along the highways that run through Woodstock, the nearest town to his own house in the woods where he lives with his wife, Miriam, of 59 years and where he maintains a vast computerized archive that some libraries would pay millions of dollars to acquire.

Sanders could look back all day long, and, while he does peer now and then into a kind of rear view mirror, he’s also always peering into the future. The operative word in his vocabulary, he explains, is “next.” He adds, “Every time I finish a book, I do a little dance in my driveway, walk back to my house, and immediately the word “next” enters my mind.”

The little word “next” has prompted Sanders to write poetry, fiction, biographies, histories, manifestos, and many of the environmental laws for the town of Woodstock. “I write everyday,” he tells me. “A lot of what I write is poetry.”

On August 17, 2020 he will celebrate his 81st birthday. There’s lots to celebrate. Edward Sanders is still very much alive and well and determined to survive COVID-19 by wearing a mask and gloves whenever he goes out, which is rare these days. “My wife and I live like hermits,” he tells me. “We’re on the edge of a state forest so social distancing isn’t an issue for us.”

There’s no point in asking for trouble from the pandemic, though Sanders has asked for trouble again and again over the past half century, and all through the Cold War, the many hot wars the U.S. has fought, along with dozens of invasions and occupations when he helped to give birth to the counterculture and the movement and the cause of non-violent direct action. Sanders is still birthing trouble.

“We’ve got to push back against white supremacy,” he tells me early one morning when it’s not yet dawn in California and already eight a.m. in New York. Sanders adds, “We’ve got to obliterate racism from public discourse.” He knows that Trump and his followers are very bad news, but he also knows that bad news has been at the core of the American story from the very beginnings of the nation that emerged from a revolution and soon morphed into an empire.

“Thomas Jefferson and John Adams made all kinds of horrible accusations against one another,” he says. “The U.S. has a long history of violence toward minorities and the Republicans have been stealing elections for a long time.”

While Sanders helped to found the Yippies and later the Youth International Party (YIP)—“I was part of the pacifist wing,” he tells me—he doesn’t linger long over the days of Yippie glory. “I was close to Abbie in 1969,” he remembers. “Jerry Rubin, we called him ‘pizza street’ because he wanted a reenactment of the Cuban Revolution in the U.S. and then couldn’t deliver. Both Abbie and Jerry are long gone, but two Yippie women, Judy Gumbo and Nancy Kurshan, are still active.”

I didn’t meet Sanders until six months or so after Abbie Hoffman’s death in 1989. “The Yippies were greatly imperfect human beings,” he told me then. That view didn’t stop him from mythologizing Abbie and company in his 1970 novel, Shards of God: A Novel of the Yippies. Years later I read and reviewed Sanders’ novel Fame & Love in New York which explores two subjects he knew a great deal about from his own personal experience. Life magazine put him on the cover on February 17, 1967.

Sanders doesn’t go out much these days, but the world comes to him. He recently read poetry via Zoom to 750 people in Buffalo New York, and also joined with John Sinclair, the founder of the White Panthers, for another Zoom event. Publishers all over the country are clamouring for Sanders’ glyphs. Indeed, he now has thousands of them. While he had made doodles and drawings for most of his adult life, he didn’t start to make glyphs until he found himself in Florence, Italy in 2008. Steve Clay published a facsimile edition.

In his “Hymn to Glyphs,” which he wrote for an exhibit of his work in Woodstock in December 2019, Sanders explained that “A Glyph has the power to shake the spirit. It emblazons shapes, lines, colors, space and words into an intense zone of enhanced visualization.” Sanders’ glyphs, which make dramatic use of color and line, texts and drawings, may be one of his most valuable contributions to American and world culture. Strike that last sentence. They are and will be a testament to his seemingly infinite gift of creativity plus his political passions that he had fused to the discipline of art!

His glyph of the burning of Newgate Prison, a pivotal historical event which took place during the Gordon Riots in London, England in 1780, combines an image of the notorious building engulfed in flames with the text, “Which one was William Blake?” It was published in CounterPunch on July 7, 2020.

Blake is one of Sanders’ role models. So is Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet and author of HowlKaddish and Wichita Vortex Sutra, an anti-war epic that helped to fuel protests against the U.S. invasion and occupation of Vietnam. Like Blake and like Ginsberg, who were both moral crusaders imbued with a sense of the avant garde, Sanders has been a visionary and a creative force who has managed to steer clear of the pitfalls of fame and notoriety. Like Homer, the author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, he aims to write poetry that offers the latest news about war and peace.

Surely, it’s a good thing that he declines to give interviews to the dozens of filmmakers and biographers who want him to talk about the past. If he were to accept those invitations he wouldn’t have time to express himself and to communicate to readers and viewers.

“I have too many glyphs,” he tells me. Indeed, his glyphs seem to have a life of their own and to go on multiplying whether their creator wants them to appear or not. Clearly, the glyphs have prompted Sanders to summon his talents as artist and as writer and to speak to a world on fire and in upheaval. William Blake would cheer.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.