First appeared in Your Impossible Voice Magazine Issue 14, Spring 2017. yourimpossiblevoice.com
The Last Time I Saw Howser
The last time I saw Howser was at Pauli Pratt’s new flat on Fat Street, just west of Broadway, a couple blocks inland from the lake, in East Rogers Park, on the far Northside of the city. Howser’s girlfriend left him and for some reason he blamed me. I had a six-pack under my arm and offered him a beer. He reached into the side pocket of his loose fitting, black leather car coat and pulled a knife and said, “I think you should leave before I do this to you,” and stabbed the belly of an empty cardboard moving box stacked by the door waiting to be taken to the garbage, and then he gave the blade a twist for emphasis.
“OK,” I said, took my six-pack, less a beer I gave Pauli, and left Pauli Pratt’s new flat, while Pauli Pratt sat watching our exchange wide-eyed from the far end of the room. Pauli finally moved out of his parent’s apartment where he grew up, in Albany Park, and this is how he celebrated his first day at his new residence. Pauli sat there and never said a word. Once the egg is cracked. Congratulations, welcome to the world.
Howser was a junkie and a thief for as long as I’d known him, possibly a killer, though he never robbed me until recently. Howser and I used to be good friends. We go back to the days of Ed Dorn’s creative writing workshop when we shared editorial responsibilities for Stone Wind Magazine, our college sponsored literary rag and winner of two Illinois Arts Council Awards for editions issued on my watch. I introduced Howser to Amelia, his now ex-girlfriend. She was another under-aged waitress I knew from working at The Kingston Mines. She approached me at Howser’s reading at the Body Politic and asked if I could introduce her? “You scored a groupie,” I told Howser, “and she is a cutie. She said to tell you she’s yours for the night if you want her.”
We took Ami along to the after-reading party where Howser got paid. Perhaps, had they paid Howser by check he might have stuck around but with cash in his pocket he asked me to look after Ami for him and he took off to score. The party was at a third story walkup apartment. Amelia followed me out to the back porch. There were no chairs or anything to sit on so we slid down to the boards and used the redbrick building wall to lean back against. I lit a joint and we passed it back and forth. We sat side by side, the full moon rising in the night sky before us. I slid my hand up her thigh. She caught my wrist and covered my hand in hers, and said, “What about Howser?” I smiled, what about him? I said, OK. We finished our smoke and then I drove her home.
A couple of days later she moved in with Howser and he taught her how to write poetry. They were quite the couple while it lasted. Amelia’s new poems sounded like a female Howser. And then, one day she left him flat, just like that. Howser thought she was kidding and refused to accept it was over, they were so in love, at least he thought so, and pleaded with her to return. She refused. Amelia began phoning Howser each time she climbed into bed with someone so he could hear for himself and believe his own ears. Amelia liked to bop about and probably thought she could do better than living in the basement of Howser’s mother’s home, on the Northwest side of the city in an old Polish Catholic neighborhood, without a private kitchen, or bath. “Four feet under,” as Howser called it before he met Amelia.
Howser tried to hang himself. He showed me the rope burns on his neck. He complained, “The basement ceiling was too low. I kicked the chair out from under me and landed on my toes and hung there unable to die.” So, he cut off his nose instead. I don’t know where he thought that would get him. He was a good-looking guy, tall, slim, handsome, articulate, and even regal in that junkie sort of way. He submitted to circumcision at age 23; he developed warts. He was 30 when he lost his nose. Howser needed someone to blame for losing Amelia so he chose me.
“At the time, I thought I was doing you a favor,” I reminded Howser, “I told you when I introduced her she was a groupie, a cute fuck who would like you to take her home for the night. She didn’t ask to be taken home to marry.” Howser refused to remember. I asked him, “What did I do other than introduce you?” Again, he gave no answer, but insinuated I did something. “Like what?” He wouldn’t say, and instead tried to stare me down. “Go fuck yourself.”
Amelia left him because Howser never had any money, didn’t work and seldom left the house. He lived the life of a guard dog in the basement of his mother’s house, protecting the property, got high and wrote poetry. His characters were inanimate objects found in his surroundings. He spoke to his phone, not on it. His phone spoke to him. He lived partially submerged beneath the soil among the dead and half-dead. His previous girlfriend, Nell, since high school, danced at a Rush Street strip joint and kept him in money and drugs for all those years she lived there until she moved on for whatever reason and Howser was left to survive on beer money his mother threw at him, and whatever he managed to pick up on the street, stealing, robbing homes, or by moving a bag or two.
Howser’s real problem with me had nothing to do with Amelia. Howser wanted my job at the Arts Council, and thought he deserved it, too. Richard Friedman published Howser’s first book, and considered Howser his best writer on his Yellow Press publishing list. Howser, in turn, thought he deserved the call from Friedman before me. “Friedman phoned me,” I reminded Howser, “I didn’t call him. What did you expect me to do turn it down? I got rent to pay.” Howser never considered that maybe threatening to throw Richard Friedman out of a speeding car during our three man cross-country reading tour last spring may have caused Friedman to think twice before offering Howser a job. Richard Friedman gesticulated wildly when he spoke. He had wild blue eyes, dirty blond hair with a cowlick, and a face full of bleeding pimples and herpes pus. He was a straight-arrow button down know-nothing fool, insulting and obnoxious in every way and ways you can’t imagine, arrogant, square, an academic from the suburbs. Friedman didn’t drink, do drugs or smoke tobacco, and never smoked a joint in his life. Friedman invited Howser along on his reading tour to lend credibility to himself and help promote Yellow Press Books. But, Howser refused to travel alone with Friedman, and asked me along as a personal favor, and in return offered I could read with them in Bolinas, California, at the end of the tour. A free ride to the west coast in the springtime sounded like a good idea to me, so I went along.
Friedman and Howser rubbed each other wrong from the start. Friedman was easy to dislike. He’d ask questions like, “What makes you guys so cool? I don’t get it?”
“How do you answer a question like that?” Howser asked me.
“With patience,” I chuckled. Friedman was such a creep he was amusing. We were driving a dark blue, late model Ford Comet sedan Friedman arranged for the trip from a car-transport company, oil and fuel expenses included. “We try not to insult each other every time we open our mouth, for one thing,” I offered Friedman, adding, “You can’t teach cool. But, maybe, if you tried thinking before you spoke once in a while, might be a good first step. I don’t get it. How does a clueless person like you get to own the press and land the art’s council job?” I asked Friedman. He never heard a word I said.
“You guys are tough nuts to crack,” Friedman argued in return.
“You see, that’s just the point,” Howser scoffed, “we’re not nuts, and we don’t want anyone try to crack us. How come you don’t get it?”
“Trying to break somebody’s balls is counter to trying to fit in, man. You need to be cool, talk less and relax, observe more, maybe try enjoying life around you.”
“Like counting corn rows?”
“No, man, ain’t nothing to do with corn.”
We were on our first day on the road entering Nebraska, late afternoon and Howser cussed and said to me, “One more word out of that guy and I’m gonna throw him out of this goddamn car.”
“Well, just don’t try it while I’m driving, OK?” I offered to drive the entire way, but that got nixed in favor of 200-mile pit stop rotations, one sat or slept in the back seat. We only stopped for food and gas. I never saw Howser drive a car before. The first time he got behind the wheel he set off cautiously like he never had, either. Howser twice spun off the road while behind the wheel driving through southern Wyoming during a snow storm, once before, and again, right after we stopped for a meal. You would think you’d get a decent cut of beef in cattle country? I ordered steak and got a brick and a side of catsup. I argued but Howser refused to give up the wheel, even after the second spin out had us moving sideways and then trunk forward until we finally slid to a stop. “Thank God there’s no traffic.”
“I got it now,” Howser argued.
“You sure? That’s what you said last time. Christ that was wild. Good thing we’re the only ones on this road.” We were heading west in white-out conditions, on a straight and abandoned stretch of Interstate 80 driving ass backwards down a junkie’s dream highway devoid of signs or traffic in the dim white light beneath a quickening storm coming up from the far end of a sunset obscuring our view with darkening shades of varying white and gray. Snow continued to fall and covered all four lanes of raised highway and the fields on either side enwrapped us in a landscape of dim fading white. I couldn’t stand any more. I took a Valium, secured my seatbelt in the back seat and snoozed right through the next two shifts.
Friedman woke me from a deep sleep to tell me he won $30 in the casino. “That’s why you woke me up, just to tell me that? Why are you such an asshole?” I looked up and saw we were in a casino hotel parking lot. I crawled out of the Ford’s compact back seat to stretch my legs and use the casino restroom, and wash my face. We made two brief stops along the way for Friedman and Howser to hawk their books, one in Denver and the other I had no idea where we were, some college town bookstore back room scene. Four people showed up and our host invited me to read, as long as I was there, and since we were, apparently, the only act in town. By the time we got to our final destination on the coast the fog was in, the night was cold, Friedman looked weary and tired, and Howser looked worse having run out of drugs and needed a beer. Unlike my two companions, I felt refreshed, well rested, full of energy and ready to have some fun.
We read at the Bolinas bookstore. Lewis McAdams was there, along with Joanne Kyger, of the original beat poet west coast scene, Joe Safdie and his two wives, past and present, the artists, Arthur and Simone Okamura, and Charlie Ross and his Smithereens Press gang all cozied into the tight spaced, small book store emporium to hear us read our poems. Friedman gesticulated wildly a poem about hats for ten minutes, Howser read some magic from the crypt, a dead man embracing darkness, and I closed with Some Auld Lang Sine. Afterwards, we went down the street to Smiley’s Saloon for drinks, a 9-ball table, and dancing to a live rock band.
The next day, I woke up in an unheated, damp, chilly house, with a warm, pretty dark-haired girl I danced with the night before. The band played a slow blues to end the last set. I held her in my arms and bit her ear. She smiled and offered to take me home. Friedman had arranged for us to stay in the city so I told them to go ahead and I’d meet up with them tomorrow. Richard gave me the address in the Richmond District of San Francisco, then added, “If you’re not there by 3pm we’re leaving without you.”
“Ya, don’t you dare. I’ll be there.”
She never told me her name nor did I ask, nor did she ask me mine, or maybe we did and I forgot. We left the bar and walked up the street in the coastal fog until we came to a path cut into tall grass and over-grown bramble and lilies, and followed the trail a few hundred feet to a darkened house where we entered through a rear unlocked sliding glass door. She was the house sitting the residence. She explained there were no lights. The power was off. Apparently, as part of the deal to the house sitter, the owners of the property preferred the premises kept without power and gas while they were away. Or, we were trespassing. I didn’t care. Bolinas really is in the middle of nowhere. It’s a cool artist town. I’m there for a night, and either way it felt good to take a break from my edgy traveling companions, and have this woman and a bed to stretch out in. Bolinas had a homey, lived-in feel, or was it the funky sheets, and mildew?
So many birds to wake you in the morning. I got up and took a cold shower. She said she preferred showering in the afternoons when it was warmer, and I didn’t blame her one bit, but I knew it would be days before I had another opportunity, so I jumped in cold water, or not. Bolinas was little more than two streets that met between the coast and The Bolinas Lagoon, but there is a hotel downtown. We had breakfast at the Bolinas Hotel outdoors on their café patio. I still didn’t know her name and felt embarrassed to ask so I didn’t. I took my last sip of coffee, said good bye, and rose from our table, stepped off the wooden planked veranda onto the gravel paved road that served as Main Street and stuck out my thumb. The first car to come by stopped and picked me up, an old VW bug with no back seat. We took the road up over Mt. Tamalpais and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. The friendly driver was going my way and offered to take me down 19th Avenue to the Richmond District in San Francisco where I met up with Howser and Friedman for the ride back home.
And now, I had the poet-in-residence job and Howser didn’t. A week after the incident at Pauli Pratt’s flat, Friedman approached me downtown at the office with a deal. If I would agree to be responsible for Howser he’d hire him.
“What do you mean, responsible for Howser?” I asked.
“Keep an eye on him. Make sure he’s where he’s supposed to be. If you’re willing to take responsibility for Howser I’ll hire him,” he repeated.
“I don’t think so,” I said. I didn’t want any part of it. “Howser can take care of himself. He don’t need me. But, you should hire Howser if that’s what you want to do. But, don’t ask me to do your job. I have my own responsibilities. And besides, you know Howser. He’s a full-grown man. He always shows up where he’s supposed to be.” And, that was that. I might have agreed and secured Howser the job on the spot, despite the incident at Pauli Pratt’s flat, had Howser not burglarized my apartment over the weekend while I was tending bar down the street. Like the cop said, “It’s always someone you know.” I can forgive a threat, people have bad days, but breaking and entering my apartment and stealing my shit is a no.
I never heard what happened to Howser after that. I never saw him again.
First appeared in Peacock Review (peacockreview.com)
Conversation with a Dove
I was in the kitchen washing dishes when I noticed a dove fly onto my balcony. Their nest was on the other side of the dining room window. I wondered if she might have flown into the patio screen door and bounced off. Either way, she ended up on a potted plant and seemed OK, except she wasn’t moving so I walked over to take a closer look. My presence at the glass didn't alarm her so I slid open the door and gave her a soft whistle hello. She stood there looking at me. I slid open the screen door. Still, she didn't fly off. She stood there shifting around trying to focus her eyes on me. She appeared to be molting. She had light gray feathers with round black and white markings on her wings, typical mourning dove. Then, she gave me a low, quiet, inquisitive whistle, “You-who?” I whistled her a, “You-who?” back. She seemed amazed and got excited and spun around in the dirt. I waited for her to whistle again and then I gave her a low soft call and this time she got so excited she rustled her feathers, spun around in the dirt and called to me again. This went on back and forth for some time until we both got tired and ran out of things to say, and then we said good-by and she flew off and I went back to washing dishes. A few seconds later she landed on my windowsill above my kitchen sink where I worked, tapped on the screen to the opened window and whistled to me again. I whistled back. She bobbed her head one more time signaling to me her delight she recognized me, and farewell again, and flew off. She recognized me through the screen. I have a very cool neighbor.
First appeared in Creating Chaos Magazine (creatingchaos.com)
The Road to Pleasanton
My writing community has broken down. So many have died, gone mad, grown old, lame, stupid, lazy, tired, and stopped showing up. Someone else died. They found his body on a BART train heading to Pleasanton. Why he was on that train nobody knows. Perhaps, he had no place to sleep, and Pleasanton seemed like a nice place to die? There as a time we used to meet at my place, and drink, share drugs, smoke cigarettes, laugh and talk wildly into the night. Today I sit here alone on the coast and the rains continue day after day. My writing community has broken down, vanished, disappeared, but I still sit here scribbling works to the beat of the rains falling on my windowpanes. I miss the thunder, and lightning.
This Other War
A rush of Nuevo Bacterioso rippled through my intestines causing my body to revolt, tremble out of control. First came the dry heaves, felt my life about to pass, but not before my eyes, and I felt weak and fell down on the bathroom floor waiting for the poison to work its way through my system. What appeared to be ripe cherries shipped north from Chile turned out to be a message of vitriol from someone who wants to kill me. Horses don’t piss on cherries, underpaid farm workers do because they hate us for importing produce cheaper than they can pick them. That’s how much they hate us. Or, maybe it was their field boss who poisoned the Bing cherries. Maybe he is the one who hates us. He might have been a decent guy once, just a regular guy who worked hard and loved his family and friends. Before he took the foreman job, crew leader and big asshole paid to talk shit like the boss talks shit to his co-workers, who were once his friends and brothers. He wasn’t even the most productive guy, not even close, just a little taller than most, and who always had a big smile for the boss. Still, he worked hard for his money, like everyone else. Only now he does it for a little more money and has no friends, so maybe he takes it out on me, fucking Los Americanos. He used the unfiltered water to hose down this produce. He used the less expensive local tap instead to send his season’s greetings with love from your friend down south, and curses, on top of their cheap, imported, out of season, Chilean grown, fancy, and very sweet, Bing Cherries.
From Forage Magazine (forage.com)
The baby next door is crying. I can imagine how she feels. Today is the first warm day of her life. She pulled at her stiff, thick, new baby clothes trying to get comfortable while strapped into a plastic high chair like a mental patient. The washing machines in the laundry room below her window stopped and silence graced the air. My nerves eased and I leaned back on the redwood lounge chair on the balcony surrounded by neighbors and trees and relaxed. And then, one by one I heard the birds calling out, the hummingbirds clicking, hovering before me, picking fruit flies out of mid-air, the mourning doves cooed, gulls screeched, blackbirds cawed, passing geese honked, a woodpecker worked the magnolia tree, the sparrows sang their ancient nest builder’s song, ducks swam in the pool. A red-tailed hawk sprang from the pond surprising me, slipped beneath the magnolia tree and settled on a low branch of the fur pine, shook water from its long, out-stretched wing. Baby Mia stopped crying. The mallards in the pool were talking. Mia listened. A jet plane flew overhead leaving its trail of bile and industrial soot in its wake. Once passed the kids playing in the schoolyard blocks away could be heard again. Her mother spoke. Something smelled good. Another tenant dressed in her Sunday best, and pretty as a new tattoo, came baring her dirty laundry in an old wicker basket shaped like a shoe. She paid tribute quarters to the machines below and the noise returned, and baby Mia cried, again. Poor kid. I got up and walked back inside.
The Future of Dreams
Dreams will have their day.
A breathing bed.
No one likes a fearless foe.
Must be legal.
You get to be who you are.
Decimated most of the world.
Lives to grow.
I won’t feel bad but you might.
Changed until they went public.
They call it time control.
If you digitize you can live forever.
The bed becomes you in the end.
When we were insects super heroes fell from trees.
What percentage of the universe are you now?
What is your quotient?
The moment marble turns to clay.
When stillness, that moment.
When the trees become me.
When I fall.
You get to be who you are
If you’re lucky.
Big Foot Chips and Other Food Crimes
Half of what is sold today
Should be against the law.
I had a taste for guacamole
And whipped some up.
I don’t usually eat chips
But I bought some. The result,
My feet swelled up from the salt.
You are what you eat.
I ate Big Foot.
From Echo Literary Magazine (echoliterarymagazine.com)
Enough with the Baby Talk
Suddenly, I have four neighbors with new babies and its summertime, a pretty, perfect day for showing off your kid. But, who can remember their names? Or, even their parents’ names? How they come and go, these neighbors, renters of the new millennia, current crop of family makers and their first born, two boys, two girls. So, what do these babies have to cry about with all that attention? Maybe they watch the news and want no part. They are advised to concern themselves with the basics; food, warmth, a roof over their head. A good book. The parents speak in the highest octave to their kids. They don’t actually speak, they trill, coo, makes baby noises mimicking whatever the baby has to say. They make baby small talk. The man next door looks at his 9 month old grandson, gets up in its tiny face and squeals like a loon, screeches, blubbers, snorts, and giggles, anything to amuse his grandson. The old man is left in charge. His son and the women all work. The lady downstairs, also a grandparent, sings to her baby girl of 16 months. The baby girl sings back. The kid next door cries and cries. 6 months old and already nothing interests her. In the unit one over is the 4th kid who is 2 years old, and not so terrible. Cute kid. Says hello to anyone passing by his window. They are all cute, but together they make a lot of noise. We all got to live, and I should not complain. But still, I put my book down, get up from my lounge chair on the balcony overlooking the garden where they have gathered, pull open the tall eight foot wide sliding glass door and step inside my living room, and turn up the stereo, straight ahead jazz, and they all go away.
The morning fog never burned off, never left, pulled a double shift and became an overpaid, overcast cloudy afternoon. Pulled myself out the door to clear my sleep worn head. Happiness is never having to be anywhere. Unless you are hungry and need something to eat. Season of happy gloom, grey as the day is grey. Winter is the most unnatural season. What can be more unnatural than winter? As busy as a day with nothing to do. Air inhaled for the first time. I look up and smell the day, inhale clouds of grey, sense there is a festival in the air, in the sun and fog across the bay, in the rapture. As I step into the great grey beyond. What? More grey? Winter feels better when sick. Grey sand pipers picking away in the grey surf, silver fish gone grey. I wandered down the stairs and out the building entering the squalid greyness facing Willow Street, crossed over then took a right at Whitehall Place into the mall, passing the smelly crowded grey recycling station, a metal shack with grinders that spit back coins, people standing in line with their recycled plastic great recession bags filled with empty beer bottles and soda cans, the sour stink of stale beer slop and syrup, the tinkle of breaking glass, grinding, ground back into sand, aluminum cans crushed and turned into spare change. I stood there at the foot of spectacle, the precipice of a thriving commerce a foot above the asphalt ribbon laid before me and cast a stare out over a stretch of concrete sidewalk divinely set between Dress for Less and OfficeMax, a virtual no man’s land of empty parking spaces, a mythic windy stretch of gunmetal grey open space whacking me in the face, the morning fog of parking transformed into the twisted, crowded bedlam lot of the future, the coming afternoon. I pass the mighty Kohl’s on my right on my way up the block to Trader Joe’s, a large black service van unmarked except for half a dozen large white serial numbers printed behind the rear wheels on its right side, a short-termed fleet vehicle parked in the receiving area but sticking out onto the sidewalk between myself and Applebee’s Bar & Grill and blocking my way. The hinged rear door is open and I watch the lone individual inside, a silhouette of a man looking my way before he raised his shirt front and pulled a gun from his waistband and stashed it in a drawer, what looked like a wall of built-ins behind the driver’s seat, then turned to look at me again. I see him clearly as I near the large service van, my eyes fixed watching what he does. He threads the interior aisle and approaches, frames the opened doorway and peers down from his perch checking me out, probably wondering if I saw him stash his weapon. He looks to be in his early 20’s, 5’7”, about my size maybe thinner, looks not unlike myself when I was his age, if I was black, wearing jeans, a long-sleeved army green camouflage tee-shirt with a yellow nylon vest half a dozen sizes too big for him, like city street workers wear to avoid getting hit by cars while working in traffic, a baseball cap on worn backwards, shades, running shoes. I sense trouble, avoid eye contact and keep walking. Maybe I should call the cops. That nervous feeling something is not right. But didn’t. Where can you find a pay phone these days? He robbed the Wells Fargo Bank across the parking lot from Trader Joe’s. Forget gold, I’ll take the heaven plated. The Alameda Journal ran the story and posted a photo of the suspected thief standing before the bank teller with a phone number who to call with information. Well, we can’t have these guys coming around brandishing guns and sticking up banks, not in my neighborhood. In fish heaven sharks eat fishing boats. I asked Agent Richard Santos, FBI, San Francisco Station, if there was a reward. He laughed. So, all we have to do is locate who’s truck that was, he replied. That’s what I think, I say. I imagine by the way he dressed he was a helper. His boss told him to hold the fort. But instead he crossed the parking lot, robbed the bank, and then hid in the van until his boss returned. And, that’s how he got away.
A Man Rose from Deep Sleep
The man woke in a field of green, slid off the divan and approached the window. Experienced the entire universe before him. He never gave much thought to dying before he died, the act of dying always in the way. But, once dead, he realized something was going on. He knew that moment he opened his eyes and witnessed the possibilities. Light is everything. Light is life. He saw every wavelength in the vast field of vision before him. How many billion lifetimes would it take to count them all? Where would he put them if he could hold them in his hand? How many drops of water fills the sea? How many memories to complete a life? What to do with all the music? Now, he knew why he went to all those concerts. Now, he knew. Death is 11 dimensions where life on Earth is only 3. Light is the medium, the key. He is surrounded by light, in gas form and liquid light, every bit, every wavelength is every life ever lived, every face he’s ever known, every word ever spoken. No editing here in the big picture. Eternity is more than timelessness, eternity is all of time at once, where time lives, is home, built on lives lived, the building blocks of his universe, this castle of all time. Drunk on happiness even death seemed glorious, such competition to live, so many lives. He counts, thinks he must have died a million times to have so many lives, to know death so well. Death is luxury. Death is what you take with you. The best die young from overwhelming desire to do it again. Takes note, next time slow down and live.
Letter to the New York Times, June 5, 2009, 30 Years Later: Poetry As A Literary Sporting Event
When I graduated from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago in 1971, there were no poetry reading series in Chicago. None. And there hadn’t been one since Sherwood Anderson held readings in his living room in the 1930s and 40s, so any talk about Chicago being a “poetry town” since the turn of the 20th Century are dead wrong. The Blue Store Reading Series, which began in 1971, and hosted by myself, Terry Jacobson, Henry Kanabus, Stephen Pantos and Patrick McPhee, in a basement of an antique store on Wellington Avenue in New Town, began what is now seen as a literary renaissance in Chicago. Prior to the Blue Store Readings if you wanted to hear poetry read on a regular basis you had to travel to NYC. Six months after the birth of the Blue Store Reading Series, The Body Politic Readings began on Lincoln Avenue, and after that readings began sprouting up all over town and have been a growing phenomena since.
In 1979, I was poet-in-residence for the City of Chicago Council On Fine Arts. One early autumn night I was standing at the bar in Oxford Pub on Lincoln Avenue, when a reading that was taking place in a storefront next door spilled out into the street. Jerome Sala, a popular young local poet at the time, was giving a reading, when Jim Desmond, of the Jim Desmond Blues Band, was sitting in the audience and decided he didn’t like what he was hearing so Desmond picked up a chair and went after Sala. Somehow, they both ended up in front of me at the bar and I suggested, and they agreed, to put them in a boxing ring and let them beat shit out of each other, metaphorically speaking. I supply the rules and winner takes all. Thus was born the World Heavyweight Poetry Championship Fights.
Five years later, Marc Smith came up with an open reading format of the fights he named the Poetry Slam. Marc Smith has apparently added a name since then. I wonder if he got married? Smith deserves a lot of credit for what he has accomplished. To run a Sunday night reading series for 25 years is no small feat. But, I still retain my bragging rights. And to that end I will challenge Marc Kelly Smith to a one on one heavyweight poetry bout anywhere, anytime, as long as it takes place in a major population center somewhere on or near the Interstate 80 corridor.
Al Simmons, Commissioner WPA
(World Poetry Association)
For Me There Will Always Be An Underground.” Al Simmons Speaks with Green Panda Press
Bree: u’ve met and mingled with so many respected poets—got any good remnants?
Al: I just remembered how I met Jack Michelin. It was 1982. I was new in SF and staying with friends. One day I was hanging out and ducked into a gallery opening for a free glass of wine and a piece of cheese and ended up buying a small stone sculpture from Jack Michelin. It was the face of a woman cut out of soapstone. I recognized Jack from a reading. I told him I liked his work but the last thing I needed at the moment was another rock to weigh me down. I didn't have a place to stay let alone hang his art. But he talked me into it. I wrapped it in a towel and hid it in the back seat of my car until I found a place to settle into. I used to hang it on a big weeping willow tree in the backyard. Now it's in a box. I just remembered where I got it. I wonder if it's worth any money?
B: take it out of that box! any j-hole will buy that from u—i think they’d buy his old dirty socks! but u still got a tree, i’d bet. well, so is there a particular contemporary poem or collection that u revere/left its mark on u?
Al: Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger is still the best poem of the 20th century. Something a lot of people don’t know, Ed Dorn wrote books 3 & 4 of Gunslinger in Chicago. I was studying with him during those two years. Ed published each book separately as he wrote them. Book Three, The Cycle broke the 5 x 7 format of books one and two by publishing book three in 10 x 12 inch size pages in bold print and full color. There was a character introduced in book three called Al, who looked a lot like me then. He had a belt buckle with the name AL printed on it. From Gunslinger: The Cycle, The I.D. Runs the Actual Furnishings, verse 19:
Below his right ear is the brand
The cuneiform form of Man and God
And these were the signs of his predicament.
I told Ed I thought that mark was a birthmark. But the truth is it was a hickey I was given by Rhea Hoffman who was 13 years old. I was 12. And it never went away, so maybe I was kissed by a goddess? She looked like a goddess at the time.
Studying with Ed Dorn was quite an initiation. I asked Ed why he made the print of the Cycle (first edition) so large? He said, so I could read it. He was a funny guy. He told me this in his kitchen, at the old 911 Club, the original 911 Club, 911 Diversey Avenue in Chicago, where Ed and Jenny lived while Ed presided over the writing program at Northeastern Illinois University on the northwest side of Chicago, where I was enrolled as an undergrad.
Being a named character in the greatest poem of the 20th Century is a nice credit. There were only four characters in Gunslinger who were introduced under cloak of their own names; Howard Hughes, Rupert Murdoch, Tonto Pronto, and me. Book Four of Gunslinger, The Winter Book was originally titled The Slaukowski Sausage Factory. In retrospect those years turned out to be Ed Dorn’s most productive.
B: i'd like to emphasize that you catalyzed the poetry bouts and poetry fights--you told me the story when we were in Berkeley, and its kind of in yr NYT letter---by the by the poem you sent me in the mail is so killer. it is so wholly your voice--i think that is what makes a poem good; if it is totally the voice of the poet, it cld be on microwaving frozen french fries, or crossing the rubicon, whatever. it is the voice that matters most. voice carries pov, and this is what we find useful in eachother.
Al: Thank you. There was an intellectual framework surrounding the fights. Let me tell you what the world of poetics looked like back in the early 1970s. When Ed Dorn left NEI for a job at Kent State, he replaced himself as poet-in-residence with Ted Berrigan, who at the time was head of the New York School of Poetry. So, I got to be student aide and faculty assistant for Ted Berrigan.
I’ll tell you a story. Ted didn’t know I was on the university payroll for being both his student aid and faculty assistant, and I didn’t tell him until one day after class several months into the semester Ted and I were sitting at the corner bar having a shot and a beer and I confessed. I applied to be Ted’s assistants because I knew he didn’t need any. He gave no assignments, did no research. That was pretty smart, Ted decided, and added, you can buy the next round. And then Ted borrowed $5. Ted always paid you back on payday when he cashed his check.
I guess you can say I was lucky, first to study with Ed Dorn and then Ted Berrigan, two of the top three poets of the second half of the 20th Century. You can say I had my share of rarified air. Ted Berrigan was 36 years old when Dorn brought him in to Chicago. Ted died young, at age 47. But, during the ten years that I knew Ted we became good friends, and I got to watch Ted develop from the head of the NY School of Poetry into a Master Poet. Ted grew larger than the scene. Hanging out with Ted was like seeing your best friend turn into Socrates. I was a man of great fortune and witness.
There were basically four schools of poetry being practiced in the 50s thru the turn of the century, and beyond. There were the academics, The Black Mountain School, The New York School and The Beats. I wasn’t interested in 15th century Italian sonnets so I passed on the academics. The Black Mountain School was Charles Olson, who invented Projective Verse and open field poetry as a meter into free verse. He gathered the teachings of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and brought them a step further. Teaching at Black Mountain with Olson was Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan. Ed Dorn was Olson’s student, favorite son, and 20 years later I studied with Dorn.
The Beats were mostly criminals, drug addicts, thieves, sexual predators and perverts. William Burroughs was a junky, a pedophile, and a murderer. He killed his wife. He shot her between the eyes with a rifle attempting to shoot an apple off the top of her head. Gregory Corso spent the better half of his youth incarcerated. Neal Cassidy was a car thief and a speed freak. Ginsburg was a pervert and Jack Kerouac was a bum, the Dharma Bum, who loved speed, beer, and chasing women and good times. Jack Kerouac was the writer. As Gregory Corso put it, “Kerouac made us all.” The Beats were bohemians and cultural revolutionists and are credited for a lot of bad poetry and starting the sexual revolution.
The New York School was somewhere in between. They were constructionists, though some called them de-constructivists. Ted’s favorite topic for lecturing was how he wrote poetry. I spent years listening to how Ted “made” poems. The NYS were better dressed than the Beats. They had Masters degrees, came from middle class families. But, to me they were all Beats. They all experimented with the same American idiom. Dorn ran with Kerouac. Berrigan introduced me to Anselm Hollo, Alice Notley, of course, Ted's wife, Allen Ginsburg, Phil Whalen. Everyone knew and supported everyone else...for the most part. Writers are and have always been competitive. Each had their own distinctive voice and style and that was the key, being your own person and having your own presence and style.
If you wanted to hang out with the giants you had to have your own voice. That was the rule. If you read a poem that sounded like someone else you either dedicated that poem or you would be called out and hauled off the stage. Maybe the hauling off the stage part was an early Chicago thing. What I was interested in back then was a Chicago sound, a Chicago School. Performance Art was a product of those early experiments in Chicago and we sometimes referred to Performance Art as Chicago School. By developing the poetry fights I captured a competitive spirit of the time and gave it a presence in literary form. I built the stage and wrote the rules. I was the Commissioner of the World Poetry Association and the World Poetry Bout Association, WPA/WPBA. Steve Rose, the world’s greatest ring announcer, introduced me as the intellectual godfather of the Taos Poetry Circus, in Taos, New Mexico, where we held the Main Event World Heavyweight Championship Poetry Bouts every summer for 20 years, from 1982-2002. I began the show. Now they call it The Spoken Word Movement. I’m a footnote in history.
As Ed Dorn once wrote:
“Once I lost my keys
and couldn’t get in
Once I lost my knees
and couldn’t get down
Once I lost my face
and couldn’t frown
But I’ve never lost my place
and that’s why dig it
I’m still around.”
The Main Event, a ten round heavyweight championship poetry bout, was invitational, based on a traditional reading, two poets, an opening act and a featured poet, each reads for thirty minutes. The slam is a competitive literary event based on an open reading, whoever shows up. Somehow the slam morphed into more of a community event rather than an individual’s art, drifting away from rule #1, having one’s own voice. That’s the rap on the slam since the beginning, actually. I have no problem with the slam. It’s an open reading. As far as I’m concerned I’m happy the slam is held to any standard. And look at how the slam has proliferated? I understand slams are now being held in 80 cities across the country. On the other hand The Main Event features the best of the best, always had and always will. Anyone can write a poem, but how many people can write ten?
B: How many poems have you written this past year?
Al: About 300.
B: That’s a lot of poems.
Al: I had a good year.
B: Are your poems available?
Al: Yes. Memoirs Of The Man Who Slept His Life Away, new poems, Special Edition, Books I - V, 150 poems, 271 pages, 43K words, $35.00, (includes tax and shipping). Send cash, money order or check to: Al Simmons, Simmonsink, 420 Whitehall Road, Unit F, Alameda, CA 94501. I can be emailed at email@example.com.
B: hey, way to get a plug in! i’ll wrap us up with that goodie you mailed, and here’s hoping this one makes it in that collection.
I get lazier every day.
Doing nothing is the best.
Ok, there’s the ocean. I’ve
Seen it. Now what?
You tell me, cuz. Now
Lazy is good company.
Sunshine and enough
To eat helps.
Living off the land means
Fleecing those who graze.
Fleece or be fleeced.
Land of the fleeced,
Home of the flossed.
Other than my health
I don’t know where I get
This stuff, but
For some reason I think
All I have to do
Is write a poem or two a day
And I’m good, I’m
A happy guy.
End of story.
Al Simmons catalyzed the poetry bouts (after he had himself an actual bout)---arguably the origin of Slam Poetry. he took me on a walk on a windy shore in Berkeley, CA where i saw for the first time red-winged blackbirds. it was late May 2008, and he thot my name was Bree 08 because that is how it appeared on the cover of a bittie broad i’d made. he’s…a happy guy.
* the integrity of line spacing was not kept by blogspot trans.
Books Available by Al Simmons:
Memoirs Of The Man Who Slept His Life Away, new poems, 160 poems, 300 pages, 50K words, $35, includes tax and delivery.
"Pure vernacular. I read the whole book. Not in the last 100 years have I just read a book of poetry all the way through. It's like being in Chicago by Henry Miller, cf The Tropic of Capricorn, the way work is in the US, only this time from Chicago. And then the sex, which is the way it is in the US. " --Charles Potts, Tsunami Press
“Try to make one word at a time, one word with perfect posture. No show boater words or perfumed words. No meek hovelling words. I mean fuck all these sentences. One. One. One, (not three).” --Bree, Green Panda Press
KING BLUE, Boogie Till The Roof Caves In, Stories of Chicago's Kingston Mines, the largest showcase blues club in the world, with photographs by D. Shigley. 129 pages, $20, includes tax and shipping.
"So lucid, fine, humorous and humane is Al Simmons' book, Boogie Till The Roof Caves In, that all one can say is: Thanks. And also wish that Mr. Simmons might write another book about more--if not all--of the scenes happening in our city." Paul Carroll, Publisher Big Table Press, Chicago Reader.
THE SUGAR AND OTIS CHRONICLES, People Pay A Lot Of Money For This KINKY STUFF, a pornographic novel, 275 pages, 75K words, $30, includes tax and delivery. "The most fun book I ever wrote, and the research was the best!"
Send cash, checks or money orders to Al Simmons, Simmonsink, 420 Whitehall Road, Unit F, Alameda, CA 94501.