It was 1961. Eisenhower had cut ties with Cuba, JFK was sworn in, the Berlin Wall went up, the Shirelles were in the top ten for “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and America fizzed with the unchartered sexual dynamics created by the newly introduced pill. Meanwhile, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the homegrown poet-anarchist Tuli Kupferberg—already immortalized as the figure who survived after leaping off the Brooklyn Bridge in Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 poem “Howl”—put out the first issue of Yeah! The opening page presented the zine as “a satyric excursion published at will,” and it begins:
at the service of poetry.
Tuli, tell me how to revive
the bodies of my dead Ukrainian peasants
with your magic words
Recently re-released in facsimile edition by the publishing non-profit Primary Information, the original ten issues of Yeah! were made at Kupferberg’s home on Tenth Street and Avenue B with the help of his wife, Sylvia Topp, and printed on a mimeograph. Kupferberg asked his friends to contribute. Many delivered poetry and art, such as Allan Sillitoe, Judson Crews, Brigid Murnaghan, Peter Schumann, Anita Steckel, William Wantling; others facilitated. Jonas Mekas submitted a poem from Der Spiegel by Yevgeny Yevtushenko; Ken Jacobs provided newspaper clip collages of absurd, tone-deaf reporting. Other sourced items—a misogynist cartoon from the Yale Record, a New York Times correction detailing the war injuries of a Vietnamese child, happy news of an anti-crossdressing electric shock treatment—are laid bare, their absurdity and cruelty thrown into sharp relief.
The pages of Yeah! are a mix of charm and rage. By issue 4, Kupferberg was printing extracts from the previous generation’s cultural critics, condemning their academia: “Its nice to call for ideates, philosophies, profundities, saintniks, romantic (no) lovers & c but what if they just don’t appear? What if all we get now is a chance at the sensual joys. (And aren’t all joys (even the ideational ones) sensual?) & good and wonderful & if you will it so: holy? Carpe penem!” The seventh issue is named “A Look at the White Problem”: on the cover, a racist 1852 drawing from Yankee Notions; on the back, a photograph of a grinning white cop with a lurching, snapping dog. Issues 8 and 9 (at which point, Kupferberg showed only his own work) lampoon the medical and beauty industries; the cover of issue 10, the longest and most affecting, shouts the words “Kill For Peace.” After that, Kupferberg wanted to get even louder, so he started the band the Fugs with fellow poet, activist, and Peace Eye bookstore founder Ed Sanders, eventually performing at national antiwar protests and irritating the FBI.
Back then, the printed word had irrefutable authority. Artist magazines and books were a simple way to take back power and, in the process, reinforce community. Kupferberg’s editorship was both journalistic and deeply emotional. His satire was a reverse tactic: all political leaders are mentally ill, and the poets—the apparently mad and dispossessed—have the answers.
James Hoff, who cofounded Primary Information with Miriam Katzeff, explained, “Part of our mission is to pull stuff from the past that we think is still relevant to contemporary discussions and put out editions that feel exactly like the originals—so there’s no filter.” In 2007, as an employee of the nonprofit bookstore and gallery Printed Matter, Hoff curated a retrospective of the Fugs’ materials. Over at Kupferberg’s house one day, he had watched him pull fifty-year-old, dead-stock copies of Yeah! out of storage. Topp warned him about the fragile binding, but Kupferberg gleefully cracked them, saying, “Five hundred years from now, we are all going to be dust, and so will these books. It doesn’t matter.” Hoff was impressed: “There was very much an archival spirit, but he also believed in books being able to live in the world.”
Many of the contributors to Yeah! went on to become famous, and many disappeared. Before the reissue, Hoff and Katzeff attempted to get permission from everyone, but they were not always successful; some, it turned out, were secret pseudonyms for Kupferberg himself. Yeah! was one of many series that he published on his imprint Birth Press, but possibly both the most local and simultaneously far flung: Yeah! was the only place where you could read an old poem by Jim Tully about the hell of waiting in line at the DMV, a rhyme from Bertolt Brecht about evil, a lustful ode by an unknown Village resident, and peruse a pre-punk, anti–Cold War collage. In its way, it was a paper of record, capturing the longings, fears, and fantasies of those who needed to believe in a better world, one that would only be found through self-expression. Those fears and fantasies resonate as strongly today. Yeah! presents something inherently valuable and historical in an entirely different context: it’s a personal documentary of a vast network of friends and collaborators who would not, or could not, accept the stifling values of the 1950s. Kupferberg was a generous man—“he was the type of person who would always hand you five drawings when you saw him,” says Hoff—and this sense of him at once coheres and softens some of the harsher and more jarring imagery and ideas in Yeah! An essential feeling of freedom permeates throughout. As Lawrence Ferlinghetti once wrote: “Truth is not a secret of the few.”
Yeah! is available at Primary Information.
Alex Zafiris is a writer based in New York.