THE MAIL-INTERVIEW WITH MARIE STILKIND 78
Started on 16-6-1997
RJ : Welcome to this mail-interview. First let me ask you the traditional question. When did you get involved in the mail-art network?
Reply on 28-7-1997
MTS: When Ray Johnson started mailing me items of interest, when he sent me large envelopes with smaller envelopes inside to send to other people (adding or deleting items myself), when he finally brought over large boxes or shopping bags of envelopes to be forwarded to other people, I realized I was part of a network of mailers and mailees ... or as Ray put it , I was now the secretary of the New York Correspondance School. I met him when Albert M. Fine , a musician and student at Juilliard School of Music, brought him to my office in the Fishbowl, where I worked as editorial assitant for the Juilliard Review. Ray and I became instant friends when we realized we had both been to Black Mountain College (at different times) and both knew the same people. It was Norman Solomon who had introduced me to Philip Glass (the composer and at that time a student at Juilliard) who turned over his apartment at 69 West 96th Street to me. And it was in that apartment that I first met Albert M. Fine (who also became a composer and part of the Fluxus movement). Albert was delightful and I loved him right away. And the more I saw of Ray, the more I liked him, too. Ray was never effusive so it took longer to get to know him and his mysterious mailings. The mailings, I was given to understand, were very important and it was an honored responsibility to see that the envelopes got stamped and mailed to their recipients. The mailings would contain clippings from newspapers, magazines, a dictionary. Each mailing would contain items that were personally relevant to the recipient ; everything was original. This was 1960 and photocopy machines were clumsy and expensive and not available. Ray had quite a list of people to send to. Names that pop into my head were Malka Safro , Thalia Christ Poons, Bob Heide, George Brecht, E.M. Plunkett, Dick and Alison Higgins, Stanton Kreider, Dorothy Podber, Helen Jacobson, May Wilson, Karl Wirsum, Ann Wilson, Toby Spiselman, Richard Lippold, Julian Beck, Norman Solomon, Remy Charlip, Nick Cernovitch, and , of course, Albert M. Fine and myself. Later he included Claus Oldenberg and when Christo came to America from Bulgaria and couldn't speak English, only French, he , too, became a NYCS recipient as was Nam June Paik and the list grew and grew.
HOWEVER what Ray and his correspondents were doing was not termed mail art. We were "correspon-dancing". We were dancing through the mail, through our correspondance. It was a dance..... Ray sent an envelope (one foot forward), the recipient sent an envelope back (another foot forward). Back and forth and including others in the dance and round and round until sometimes what you had first sent out came back to you with additions or deletions or just as you had first sent it. The dance never ended as you continued to send your cuttings to one another.
RJ : Besides the exchange of mail, there were always the (planned or unplanned?) encounters with other 'members' of the NYCS. You already mentioned such encounters (Albert M. Fine introducing you to Ray Johnson; Norman Solomon introducing you to Philip Glass). Were these meetings typical for that time? What happened there?
next answer on 28-8-1997
MTS : We were all basically loners, introverts, but at that time in our lives, we were more sociable, wanted to meet new people. In the case of Norman Solomon introducing me to Philip Glass, it was a necessity. I needed to find a place to live within 10 days. He knew Phil was moving to a loft, so arranged for me to look over Phil's old apartment on 96th Street. It was full of dead mice and old pianos, plus Albert M. Fine sitting on the floor in the kitchen. I got rid of the dead mice soon after I moved in but the pianos remained there for months before Phil managed to haul them out. They were all upright, one in front of the other. I think he had disemboweled some of the strings. Ray Johnson, however, seemed more introvertish than all of us but in fact his art form was people and people connecting.... networking, I think it would be called today. He would take me to visit other friends of his, who were also part of the New York Correspondance School.
Living not to far from me were Bill and Ann Marie Wilson, soon to be joined by their twin daughters, Ara and Kate. They had a big house or apartment. Sometimes for sending out large boxes of envelopes, I would be 'rewarded' with a mystery party. One evening we went over to the poet Leroi Jones' apartment where he was dressed in a Santa Claus suit and was hosting a big party where nearly everyone was dancing on the floor, which was bouncing perilously. Another time I was taken to a downtown apartment, which was furnished with cardboard boxes and a grand piano and there I met Stanton Kreidler, who was to become a correspondent until he died in 1984. We went through hard times together, Stanton in Denver, me in Florida, but we continued to write and send one another strange cuttings and objects in the mail. We would write, "Thank God, I've got you to write to." Stanton had an alter ego: Lucia Burneson. She also used to write to me of her quite distinct middle-American middle-class life. When I went back to New York to visit and stayed with the Wilsons at their 25th Street house, Ray brought over Christo who had just arrived from Bulgaria and couldn't speak any English. We tried to converse in French. Not very well though. Ray's outings were always mysterious. He came and got me at my 96th Street apartment and wouldn't tell me where we were going until we got there. And the party or gallery opening or 'happening' were his surprises/rewards to me. Going out with him was like a gift wrapped in tinsel. You never knew what was inside but it was exciting whatever it was.
RJ : Did you ever visit Ray Johnson's home? I understand he didn't like visitors too much........
answer on 9-10-1997
MTS : I only visited his apartment once. This was, I believe but can't remember exactly, in 1965 when I was visiting New York from Toronto. His apartment was in the Lower Village at 176 Suffolk Street. I'd met Ray somewhere else and he took me there for tea and chat. The apartment was incredibly neat and tidy. There didn't seem to be anything in it except a long trestle table and one cardboard box. It struck me later that behind one of the doors was another room crammed full of his collage material.
In the cardboard box was a completed collage, which Ray inscribled to me, and the rest of the box was full of segments of collages, partial collages and two untrimmed collages. I can describe the box exactly as I just rediscovered it earlier in the year. The box had a label on it from Krementz & Co. , 49 Chestnut Street, Newark , NJ , and the postmark was May 1st , 1962. I'm looking at it now and it's full of clippings and sandpapered cardboard, which Ray used in strips for collages. There are also a few "Ray Johnson" signatures there so that if I wanted, I could make my own Ray Johnson Collages.
Ray and I used to tear around New York, going places, doing things, so for once, we had time to just sit and chat. I asked Ray a personal question. Bill Wilson had just told me that Ray was having an affair with the sculptor Richard Lippold, who I had met about ten years earlier with his wife, the dancer Louise Lippold. It didn't seem possible. Besides I thought Ray was having an affair with somebody else. So I asked him whether this was true. This was the only time I ever saw him angry. He didn't reply but grew cold and withdrew. He returned to the room with more tea for our mugs a few minutes later and we talked of other things.
When I lived in New York, I had never visited his apartment. I would never go anywhere uninvited anyway and as I'm not very good at finding my way around, people usually took me to their apartments after having met me somewhere easy to find. I don't think 176 Suffolk Street was in a particularly good neighborhood as Ray was later mugged there, which is why he moved to the Pink House in Locust Valley, New York.
I don't know whether Ray liked to have visitors to his apartment or not. I know that although he was a very sociable person, there was an element of Greta Garbo to him. He was mysterious and private and had secret jokes that you had to figure out for yourself. Enigmatic I think describes him. One wouldn't drop in on him uninvited. At least I wouldn't. He was like a pussycat. You should stroke him and he would purr, but when he wanted to be alone, he would mysteriously disappear down the alleyways of his life.
RJ : Could you give one or more examples of those "secret jokes" that you mentioned. Maybe one you figured out.....?
next answer on 1-2-1998
(With Marie Stilkind's letter she also sent copies of other things. One of them was a letter by Judson Ehrbar from the Juilliard School of Music , addressed to Ray Johnson , at the reaquest of Miss Tavroges' Lawyers after she had received a parcel from Ray with in it a piece of Lamb skin.)
MTS: One of his 'secret jokes' stank to high heaven. I attach the ensuing correspondence. The tearful eye was drawn by Ray Johnson. I , of course , wrote the original letter and just used the stamped signature of the Juilliard registrar. If you remember , I worked at Juilliard School of Music at this time.
Another 'secret joke' that I still have not figured out was when we were watching Peggy Lee on television and Ray said she was high on drugs. This came up a few years later when Ray referred to that incident and said that he had told me Peggy Lee was high on drugs. There was something significant in this that I wasn't and am still not aware of.
Ray had an air of carrying secrets. He would say something, do something and it might not have any significance to you but it did to him. It was like having a partial knowledge of a language and having to pretend to understand the whole sentence, later figuring it out from the context in which it was presented. Some people were turned off by this but I found it very Zen and remeniscent of the Black Mountain College style, where people might say outlandisch things which could or would not have real meaning. A lot of my friends had this tendency at this time.... to say things that didn't really make much literal sense but might make the sound of one hand clapping. One listened to the inner applause.
Ray was playing a game that only he knew of all the rules. The rest of us followed.... some more hesitantly than others. Some didn't want to play and didn't like Ray. But not to play was to miss out on the juice of life. When he called, I came. He was like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. He played his flute of fun and games and I was compelled to follow. He sent things in the mail and I was duty bound to deal with them, otherwise I might not hear the flute beckoning me again. I had to play his game, whether I understood the rules, the private jokes or not. I was fascinated by and addicted to his madness.
RJ : You are obviously addicted to words as well. May it be writing letters , reading books , editing , poetry . Do you know where this addiction comes from?
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