January 25, 2022

Douglas Messerli (USA) 1947

Douglas Messerli (USA)


Born in Waterloo, Iowa in 1947, Douglas Messerli grew up in a very ordinary American home. His father, a former coach, was the superintendent of the public schools and his mother, a former schoolteacher, was a home-bound housewife. Messerli’s brother later became a football coach and teacher, and his sister works as a college administrator. Within this seemingly normal home life, Messerli developed at a young age a passion for theater, reading American and European figures such as Ionesco, Pinter, Albee, and Genet as an early teenager. At sixteen he traveled to Norway for one year, attending school there. Upon his return to the USA, he attended the University of Wisconsin, dropping out after this junior year to live for a period in New York City, during which time he studied dance at the Joffrey Ballet Company and worked as Assistant to Protocol at Columbia University. In 1969 he returned to Wisconsin, where he met his life-long companion, Howard Fox, at the first gay liberation meeting on campus. Together they moved to Washington, D.C. in 1970. For a while, Messerli worked as a librarian at American University, but ultimately returned to finish his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Maryland. While still a graduate student he published Djuna Barnes: A Bibliography, as well as essays on William Faulkner, Hart Crane, and Eudora Welty, the last figure on which he wrote his Masters thesis.   

     Messerli concentrated on fiction until he met critic and teacher Marjorie Perloff, whose influence shifted his interests to poetry. In 1975 he and Fox began a journal of literature and art, Sun & Moon, which focused on contemporary and experimental writing and art. In the late 1970s he began to publish books under that name by major literary figures such as David Antin, Charles Bernstein, Paul Auster, Steve Katz, Russell Banks, and Djuna Barnes. 

     He also began writing poetry himself, and in 1979 published Dinner on the Lawn (revised in 1982). Some Distance and River to Rivet: A Manifesto followed, making up a trilogy of books of and about poetry and poetics. In the early 1980s Messerli became a professor of literature at Temple University in Philadelphia. Commuting between Washington and Philadelphia, he continued to write, working on a new book of poetry, Maxims from My Mother’s Milk/Hymns to Him, and a series of three books of combined poetry/fiction/performance collectively titled The Structure of Destruction, the last volume of which, Letters from Hanusse, was published under the pseudonym of Joshua Haigh.

     Meanwhile, Messerli returned to his first love, writing shorter and longer plays, including Silence All Round Marked: An Historical Play in Hysteria Writ (published under his own name), The Confirmation, and A Dog Tries to Kiss the Sky: Six Short Plays (the latter two books published under his pseudonym, Kier Peters). The title play of this volume was performed in Brazil, and another play from this book, “The Sorry Play,” was written in São Paulo.

     In 1985 Messerli left his tenure-track professorship to edit Sun and Moon Press full time. The same year Fox was named Curator of Contemporary Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the two of them moved to Los Angeles, where they continue to live today.

     Through the next eighteen years, Messerli continued to edit Sun and Moon Press and his later imprint, Green Integer, as well as writing poetry, fiction, drama and other works. He also edited From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990 and, with dramatist Mac Wellman, From the Other Side of the Century II: A New American Drama 1960-1995. In 2000 he began the ongoing series of international poetry, The Project for Innovative Poems Anthologies of World Poetry, for which he projects at least 50 volumes of international writing. Recently, he began a similar series for fiction: 1001 Great Stories.

     Over the years Messerli’s poetry has transformed from a poetry centered in comedy and wit to a highly lyrical and seemingly romantically-inspired writing. But its subjects—the difficulty of communicating and the isolation of each human being—have remained the same. It has also become increasingly apparent that Messerli’s work centers on a dialogue between or interchange with the community at large and the many aspects of self. He uses several pseudonyms and personas to explore, through various forms of writing, the multitude of selves within any one being. And he has used similar strategies in his larger writing project with others. In Between, for example, Messerli wrote “through” the works of poet friends, sending the results to these friends and asking them, in turn, to respond to his work. Bow Down is a book of poetry (published in both Italian and English) in which the author wrote through the writings of various contemporary Italian poets while—in several of the poems—also attending to images of art by noted Los Angeles artist John Baldessari. And in numerous works, Messerli’s counter-ego, Claude Richochet—through his imaginary critical writings, films, and essays—is quoted extensively. More recently, Messerli has begun a long series of encounters with cultural events—fiction, poetry, film, dance, music, art, and personal experiences—of each year, which he projects as a series of autobiographical volumes each titled My Year. To date volumes from 2001-2013 have been published, and others are forthcoming.

     In 2002-2003 Messerli was awarded a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance. He has received numerous other awards, including the American Book Award and the ALTA Award for Dedication to Translation for his publishing. In 2004 he was named Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.

     More recently, Messerli has focused on his six on-line sites that explore poetry, fiction, cinema, American cultural treasures, drama, and general cultural experiences. His book Reading Films: My International Cinema was published in 2012. 

     In 2020 Messerli began work at what he perceives will be a multi-volume publication writing extensive essays on all available LGBTQ films released since 1887-2020. The work in its entire is titled My Queer Cinema: LGBTQ Films Coded and Explicit 1887-2020. Continuing the work of Vito Russo and numerous other pioneers on LGBTQ film writing, Messerli contends that not only were gay figures significantly presented in world cinema, but, even if they were represented as comic or dangerous figures, were central in how cultures defined their sexuality and learned of the cultural, political, social and sexual "other."

     Messerli is the creator and editor of the Project for Innovative Poetry site.


River to Rivet: A Poetic Trilogy | Dinner on the Lawn (Washington, D.C.: Sun and Moon Press, 1979, revised 1982) / Some Distance (New York: Segue Books, 1982) / River to Rivet: A Manifesto (Washington, D.C.: Sun and Moon Press, 1984); Maxims from My Mother’s Milk/Hymns to Him: A Dialogue (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1988); An Apple, A Day (Riverdale, Maryland: Pyramid Atlantic, 1993); The Structure of Destruction—Along Without: A Fiction in Film for Poetry (Los Angeles: Littoral Books, 1993) / The Walls Come True: An Opera for Spoken Voices (Los Angeles: Littoral Books, 1995) / Letters from Hanusse [fiction, as Joshua Haigh] (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2000); After (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1998); primeiras palavras [in English and Portuguese] (Granja Viana / Cortia, Brasil: Ateliê Editorial, 1999); Bow Down [in English and Italian] (Piacenza, Italy: ML and NLF, 2002); First Words (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2004); Dark (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2012)

to hear a selection of his poems read by the author, click below:

 ╬Winner of the PIP Gertrude Stein Awards for Innovative Poetry in English

The Secret Saint
for Ray DiPalma

What to do with vestige—what
to say better than telling
something so hallucinatory and skeptical,
what in linen and hidden within
the chest of misgivings, if the bitter experience
is rendered in a smile of murmurs,
adjacent strategies that transform remoteness
into an incisive summary of regret? What
if the hand that extends into the desert
of the would-be saint’s fame, the tall
narrow tomb into which he had been
shut, cracks in the expression of so many
documents not even dreamed of
yet, the fame spread merely through
the desertion of the effective, so effective
arrangement of something and something
surrounded by something else, where not
to say where it had come from or where
it might have possibly gone? And yet,
wrapped in felt. Whose hands had surrounded
it, whose had laid the body upon
the material of its nonexistence, whose
had rolled the thighs of the would-be
saint into the linen, the felt, felt
the flesh, the telling, hallucinatory and skeptical
as truth is always, transformed such remoteness
into such an incisive summary that is always death?
A love? disciple? stranger? wife?
What to do with vestige, the bones,
the cryptic mention of these attributes, what?

Then. Not to say. Then, from base
line to horizon—for the effective arrangement
of something and something else, certainly
hallucinatory and cryptic as the attributes
of the secret saint were certain to have been,
when having contracted fever and died,
to remember, then, how? All things
being relative and excluded by the bitter experience
of those who had seen the smile, murmured
among themselves of its skeptical implications: then
how to still roll the body into what was felt,
necessarily, to be the need to properly bury it—
bare bones now—then, as I seem to recall, put it
into the crypt? Then. What to do
with vestige—what?

August 14, 1998 (Los Angeles)

For two new poems and the original Portuguese language poem, click here:

Reprinted from The PIP Anthology of World Poetry of the 20th Century, Volume 5: Intersections—Innovative Poetry in Southern California (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2005). Copyright ©2005 by Douglas Messerli.

The Composition of the Text
(after Adriano Spatola)

Every word is a rebellion
against the salt of songs.
Dust is a security.
Here the part played by color
is a compromise with the vocabulary
of matter: the hoist speeds
the crack, the suspect of accusation.
Meanwhile thought spreads
to the algebraic canon on some
uninhabited planet. Poetry
is always an “artificial shock,”
a surprise of the brilliant procession
of urgent bravados. It is a slippery
space that seems to the painter
strewn with brimstone, glistening
with those iridescent puddles of “dreamy
pianissimos.” Time was up before necessity
took the dog into dislocation.
Its mummification is relatively recent,
an audible instrument of absolute silence
between words, that synthesis of syrupy
backgrounds satisfying the code of the cold.
The best solution is to act
as if the murky derivations of meaning
were a central clause of the contract
to neglect what was already pretty set:
you know, rhododendrons spiraling
out behind the various gins
of card and drink. You sink
into solidity as soon as you have
said “cancel that word,”
now a tempest of jest.

Los Angeles, May 26, 2008

And then

And then there is always,
no other way to deny the force of act,
time making it necessary
and then bringing down the axe,
and forgetting even the compound of its own construction,
creating a natural defense against what might have been.

Then. Or perhaps not, one can return reiterate, retreat,
restep the mistaken march into collapse.

Or off the cliff the rock falls without hitting anyone ahead,
but always turning to show
what was left behind to deny the inevitability of its motion.

And then there is nothing to send one into that space of regret.

August 11, 2007

for Charlie Wine

a life
from the fold of your voice
the cross-cut of memory
fantasy, fluctuation...one plumbs to protect
oneself from....really nothing
but not quite, so it seams
sinking us both
into lime. Did I mean time?
Our detonation digests our brink,
our eyes ogling reflection as a sun
can strike eventually
everything it desires. Just turn your head,
time slips
that fast!

The silence is the real diagnosis
of the ongoing portrait
existence defines.

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