Surrealism in the Big Sky 

Thirty years later Montana Gothic literary magazine resurfaces in a new collection

Peter Rutledge Koch grew up defying the literary mainstream. When he was in grade school he was reading books like Lady Chatterly's Lover and The Marquis De Sade. It was the late 1950s and those stories were still banned in the United States. Koch discovered them unabashedly displayed at the home of his friend, Eric Fiedler, whose father, Leslie, a renowned literary critic, had smuggled the books.

Koch wasn't really a writer yet when he began studying at the University of Montana, though he'd been published in his high school literary magazine. But Leslie, who was teaching at UM at the time, helped Koch get the position of editor of UM's literary magazine, Venture, as a mere college freshman.

It was a cherished appointment, but from the beginning there was trouble brewing. Venture had just published a pseudo-erotic short story titled "I See Thee Sadly Darkly Navel" that did not sit well with the university's administration. The day Koch started his new position the literary committee called him into a meeting. From now on, they told him, they would need to approve Venture's content.

"I was told a story had to pass muster, that it couldn't just go to press, that there was a censor involved," says Koch now. "And so I quit. I knew somehow or other that this was against what I thought was right. I remember the headline in the college paper, the Kaimin, said 'Koch's Five Day Venture as Venture Editor.'"

The failed editorship became a jumping-off point for Koch's lifelong attempt to question literary convention. In 1974, he started a magazine called Montana Gothic: An Independent Journal of Poetry, Literature & Graphics. It lasted only six issues, until 1977, but it was a bold attempt to push back at what Koch and his fellow writers saw as a narrow view of Western writing.

Koch, who now runs a small press in Berkeley, Calif., recently announced the release of The Complete Montana Gothic. Besides all six original issues—which showcase artists like Jay Rummel and writers like Tess Gallagher—it begins with seven retrospective essays from Koch and original contributors such as Butte-born science writer and poet Edwin Dobb, Missoula poet David E. Thomas and scholar/writer Rick Newby. It's a compilation that takes its inspiration from surrealists, situationists and other counterculturists. At the time it was also edgy, willing to use the word "fuck" and aiming to embrace an international intellectualism during a time when most writers—at least at UM—were heavily invested in the hard-drinking, hard-loving, blue-collar portrait of small-town Montana.

Koch grew up surrounded by literary people. He lived next door to Norman Maclean, who taught him to fish. After he left Venture and UM (he would drop in and out of college over the years) he traveled to places like Paris, Morocco and Tangiers.

"When I was living in Tangiers I remember meeting William Eastlake, Mohammed Mrabet and Paul Bowles and all those dudes," he says. "I was just a young kid, but I didn't know any limits. It was all normal to me."

click to enlarge CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters

Finally, needing a job, he settled in San Francisco and he found work as a data analyst in a nuclear physics lab at UC Berkeley. He joined a situationist commune and partied with surrealists. Rummel and Thomas, in fact, were living there at the time, as well. In Thomas' retrospective essay he recalls a drunken night in which Koch and Rummel got into a fight about surrealism, until finally Rummel pulled out a .50 caliber Sharps buffalo rifle and yelled, "I'm the most surreal son of a bitch you ever met, Koch, get out of my house!" He called and apologized two days later, Thomas notes, but that anecdote was one of many during the writers' early lives.

Koch started Montana Gothic when he returned to Missoula. As it turned out, Dirck Van Sickle, the author of the controversial story "I See Thee Sadly Darkly Navel," had written a novel called Montana Gothic. It was a dark tale of the Montana landscape, Edgar Allen Poe-like, and one that seemed to diverge from other stories that romanticized the West. Koch read it and was enthralled, and later he asked Van Sickle if he could use the title for a magazine that would continue to publish writing that would critique the West in the same way.

At the center of Koch's issue with Western literature, even now, is the late poet and UM writing teacher Richard Hugo. To some critics, Hugo's famous poem "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg" captured a sweet and lonely realism about the Montana landscape. To Koch, it showed a lack of imagination—what he called "miserablism"that was aped by every Hugo student for years to come.

"When I was at the university I was appalled," he says. "Because, Oh God, Richard Hugo! Richard Hugo! Richard Hugo! You've gotta understand I did not dislike Richard Hugo. But I didn't like the one-sided character. I felt like I was in a town of one-eyed jacks and I wanted to see the other side of their face. And it wasn't there. Or it wasn't allowed. [The writers] were all a bunch of damn Protestants talking about redemption and a good woman as being the ideal. That was not my ideal."

Koch started up a printing press called Black Stone Printing, where Bernice's Bakery is today. He sought out writers who wanted to "write about the marvelous" rather than the misery. Not all of his writers shared the same intense attitude toward Hugo, but many of them, at least in the retrospective, expressed a desire for Montana writing to acknowledge the larger world around it.

The Complete Montana Gothic captures a fascinating collection of writing and art from a brief period of time. The retrospectives are possibly the most intriguing part, with their anecdotes and litany of Missoula people and landmarks like Eddy's bar. With just six issues, Montana Gothic is just a blip in Missoula's writing history, still drowned out—for better or worse—by more famous writings. But if there's an alternative to The Last Best Place, regarded as the definitive collection of local authors, this is it.

"Two things I regret regarding Montana Gothic," Koch says. "One is that I didn't serialize Dirck's Montana Gothic. The second thing I regret in the end is that I didn't just keep doing it in San Francisco and keep calling it Montana Gothic. I let those people drift out of my life. They were oddballs. They were pre-Socratic philosophers, maverick poets and cowboy surrealists. They weren't trying to write for Good Housekeeping to make a living. They were wild hairs."

Peter Koch presents an authors and artists book signing and talk for The Complete Montana Gothic at the Missoula Art Museum Fri., July 26, from 4 to 6 PM. Free.

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