Sunday, December 30, 2012

ADUPWE, Jayne Cortez

    Adupwe: Yoruba for ‘we are grateful to god’

With the death of Jayne Cortez as 2012 comes to an end, I find it my place to bid a fond Adupwe to an impassioned leader in a field of American culture which has not yet gotten its day in the sun as an American art form -- the world of jazz and the spoken word.

Her passing is a big loss.

Cortez (1936-2012), a native of Arizona and LA before becoming a NYC transplant, advanced a singularly authentic aesthetic tradition -- that of the spoken word/musical artist. It was a role that grew naturally from her experiences -- marriage to Ornette Coleman in the 1950s, central place in the Black Arts Movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and cultural ambassadorship to her own nation in later years, as a dual resident of New York and Senegal.

Hers was a voice of witness, praise and above all power. Her favorite targets? Racism, inequality, imperialism. Oppression, misogyny, corruption and the waste of human potential.

‘The ruling class’, she wrote in “There It Is,’ ‘will tell you there is no ruling class as they organize their supporters into white supremacist Ku Klux klan gangs/organize their police into killer cops/organize their propaganda into a device to ossify us.’

    My friend
    they don’t care
    if you’re an individualist
    a leftist a rightist
    a shithead or a snake
    They will try to exploit you
    absorb you confine you
    disconnect you isolate you
    or kill you

    And you will disappear into your own rage
    into your own insanity
    into your own poverty
    into a word a phrase a slogan a cartoon
    and then ashes

Cortez spoke out against co-optation, and the need for African-Americans to assert ownership of their own culture. In ’Taking the Blues Back Home,” a driving number she recorded with her group ‘The Firespitters,‘ she declared her intent to ‘take out of the mouth of the blues stealers, back to where the blues stealers won‘t go.’

And in ‘There It Is,’ she explained pointedly that enfranchisement in 21rst century America is something a whole lot more than jumping into the homogenized practices of a bland white bourgeoisie -- it also means retaining aspects of one’s own earned culture, forged in chains:

    if we don't organize and unify and
    get the power to control our own lives    
    Then we will wear
    the exaggerated look of captivity
    the stylized look of submission
    the bizarre look of suicide
    the dehumanized look of fear
    and the decomposed look of repression

For all the seeming militancy of her work, Cortez was capable of expressing alarm at the potential for violence on both sides of the racial divide. Both the "bloodthirsty people/ brooding in North Dakota with grenades in their hands" and the disenfranchised impatient for equality, ‘brooding beyond the deadline’  and ready to flare into violence.

One of her strongest and most direct poems is on the subject of rape. ‘What was Inez Garcia supposed to do for the man who declared war on her body? The man who carved a combat zone between her breasts.'  Cortez asked in the poem ‘Rape.’ ‘Was she supposed to lick crabs from his hairy ass? Kiss every pimple on his butt? Blow hot breath on his big toe? Draw back the corners of her vagina and heehaw like a California burro?'

Instead Inez did what the defense department of any nation would do in time of war-- she fought back.  'She stood with a rifle in her hand … pumped lead into his three hundred pounds of shaking flesh. Sent it flying to the virgin of Guadalupe then celebrated the death of the dead racist punk. And what the fuck else were we supposed to do?”

That's the straight stuff, no punches pulled.

There was plenty for Cortez to praise, too.

Praise for jazz, for example, its rebellious metronome, its infatuation of the ears, its ability to reach to 'the love seat in her bones.' 

Praise for African traditions, too. In ‘Make Ifa’ she celebrated the spirituality of transplanted West African music/dance culture. Here she references widely, from more widely known forms like samba and conga to the more esoteric -- soca moca, jumbi, punti, ijubi -- all invoked as a way to connect to the Yoruba-based system of divination known as Ifa.

The dirt-poor matrix of Southern agricultural life was a touchstone to her, despite its failings -- as in this, from ‘In the Morning:’

    disguised in my mouth as a swampland
    nailed to my teeth like a rising sun
    you come out in the middle of fish-scales
    you bleed into gourds wrapped with red ants…
    you touch brown nipples into knives
    and somewhere stripped like a whirlwind
    stripped for the shrine room
    you sing to me through the side face of a black rooster

The duality of cities, New York City in particular, proved to be consistently fertile ground for Cortez. New York is a place of “blood, police and fried pies,’ “brown spit and soft tomatoes.” There is a resilient glamor to the rundown human denizens of the city, each the possessor of a ‘brain of hot sauce, tobacco teeth (and) mattress of bedbug tongue.’ A rude, bawdy and ingratiating creature, New York City calls seductively out for its people to join in: 'I am New York City,/ my skillet-head friend/my fat-bellied comrade/citizens, break wind with me!'

Harlem, she declares, is beautiful, despite the fact that it is “hidden by ravines of sweet oil/by temples of switch blades”

    beautiful in your sound of fertility
    beautiful in your turban of funeral crepe
    beautiful in your camouflage of grief
    in your solitude of bruises in

    your arson of alert

And in irrepressibly humorous fashion, she poked fun at the gritty pigeons of Manhattan, which “lounge on ledges and mutter profanity all day, will  fight for fucking space in the mating season, shit on air conditioners and wipe their asses on windows while big cockroaches suck soukrats in the dark.”

As her place in the literary world became more firmly established, Cortez proved herself not averse to taking a few shots at the establishment in that world, too, railing against the anemic poetry of the academic elite -- little more than a stuffed bird in a tropical forest, she delared -- an art that “will not strike lightning through any convoy of chickens.‘

Whatever the subject of Jayne Cortez’ pen -- and whatever the style -- it  was treated with an unflinching directness of language that was more than simply confrontational. It was a language grounded in the authenticity of a people who have knowingly or unknowingly heeded a dictum enunciated by Wm Burroughs, shown in the opening scene of the trailer to the Ornette Coleman bio-pic Made In America:  

‘Immortality to the people, every man a god,' says Burroughs. 'But how do you get to be a god? Well to put it applepie country simple, by doing your job and doing it well.‘

Cortez had a knack for putting it applepie country simple -- and that was part of why she did her job and did it well. Her contribution to the use of common, earthy language rivals that of Sandburg in his day -- and as an artist steeped in musical culture, she was an adept practitioner of the musical aesthetics which informed 20th century artists as diverse as Charlie Parker, Jackson Pollock, Thomas Hart Benton and Jack Kerouac.

Flow. Contour. Dimensionality. Trajectory. Inflection. Sense of naturally spontaneous expression. Pure joy in the visceral exploration of sound.

Over the course of her productive years, Jayne Cortez spoke out forcefully against racism, injustice, co-optation and misogyny. She also sang out in praise of the great body of culture that has been produced as part of the African diaspora. That she had the ability to do so in a manner that was so down to earth and musically engaging only served to reinforce the validity of her witness. That she had the ability to command wry humor in her poetry served only to further authenticate her praise.

Hers was the power of the connected mind -- at once grounded in the gutteral originality of the language of the common man and woman, and elevated by the clarity of her vision and the fierceness of her heart.

As Mark Statman once noted, Jayne Cortez’s world view was full of complexities -- harsh, bitter, serious and sometimes sardonic descriptions of a broke down existence that, for all its corruptions, disappointments, chaotics and violations, remains beautiful. 

“A natural response to what Cortez describes is to look away,” wrote Statman. “But Cortez demands the opposite: she wants us to look and to look hard.”

Sounds like he's talking about a carwreck. And where I come from, the natural response to a carwreck -- whether it is individuals on the highway or societies -- isn’t to look away, it’s to rubberneck.

Statman is nonetheless on point with his comment.

Cortez’ poetry has always called on her listeners to question ourselves -- our tendency to drive past society’s terrible wrecks with the smug detachment of complacent, voyeuristic Americans.

We ought to be looking, and looking hard. We ought to see, to feel and to understand.

Jayne Cortez reminded us of our social duty to do so, through a poetry of fierce honesty, directness of voice, impassioned performance, colorful personality and musical richness.

These few days after her passing I, for one, remain grateful to God -- and Jayne Cortez -- for that reminder.

Adupwe, Jayne Cortez.

Friday, October 26, 2012


Three Rooms Press, which published Poppin Johnny for me two or three years ago, is at it again. Working with the fine translator Lina Sipitanou, they've come out with a bilingual collection of my poems, in Greek and English, entitled EOS: Abductor of Men (Bilingual Greek & English, Three Rooms Press 2012;

Here's a Youtube clip of me reading from the book, a poem 'Walk Into A Bakery Like It Is A Temple Of Gods,' at Le Poisson Rouge (formerly Village Gate) in Greenwich Village, last weekend.

Someone asked me to explain the book title. Eos is the Greek goddess of the dawn, and in certain versions of the legend, dawn steals young men away.  The possible connotations of that are interesting enough. I was also intrigued with the legend of Eos and Tithonus, for its quite singular meaning to me as a person who has devoted a large part of my life to the pursuit of poetry. Here's that story, which I picked up on a Florida gardening blog online. 

      In Greek mythology, Tithonus was a handsome mortal who fell in love with Eos, the goddess of the dawn. Eos realized that her beloved Tithonus was destined to age and die. She begged Zeus to grant her lover immortal life.
     Zeus was a jealous god, prone to acts of deception in order to seduce beautiful gods and mortals, and he was not pleased with Eos' infatuation with a rival. In a classic Devil's Bargain, he granted Eos's wish -- literally. He made Tithonus immortal, but did not grant him eternal youth.
     As Tithonus aged, he became increasingly debilitated and demented, eventually driving Eos to distraction with his constant babbling.
     In despair, she turned Tithonus into a grasshopper. In Greek mythology, the grasshopper is immortal. This myth also explains why grasshoppers chirp ceaselessly, like demented old men.

Hate to think of myself as a chirping old grasshopper poet. But those old Greeks were pretty smart. Guess I'll just keeping on chirping.


Monday, August 27, 2012

A Broken Fiddle, A Broken Laugh & A Thousand Memories: Revisiting The Spoon River Anthology

In my naivete I used to think that the course of human history, at least during my lifetime, was more or less a straightline thing -- society was getting better and better, humanity was growing more tolerant and inclusive, we were leaving all the bad things behind, to be waved at through the rear view mirror, we were moving toward a bright and better future.

I thought America had made irreversible progress in protecting the rights and dignities of ordinary people -- workers, women, minorities, immigrants, the elderly and the infirm, all the downtrodden people who took it and took it hard in the 'bad old days.'

Whew! When I look at the politics of the day, and the pressures from the radical right to erode hard won achievements in human dignity, I'm increasingly struck by how little we have progressed, how much danger there is for hatred, ignorance, intolerance, greed and exploitation to return.

That and how much there is to learn from revisiting the literature of the muckrakers, activists and progressives of the early 1900s -- who fought the good fight against such things a century ago.
People Like Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Frank Norris and Carl Sandburg. I mean they ought to be required reading for anyone presuming to hold the values of American citizenship dear.

And Edgar Lee Masters, whose Spoon River Anthology I recently picked up again after many years.

The man takes on some surprisingly contemporary issues head on. On page after page in the little midwestern town he created, we're confronted with unscrupulous bankers, influence-peddling politicians, rapacious corporations working hand in hand with judges, media moguls and flat-earth religious leaders to maintain the status quo of t
he 'Robber Baron" era -- ie, unharnessed economic and political domination by the rich and powerful. Coarse swaggering, abuse and corruption. Brutal subjugation of workers and the poor.

Masters gets mighty specific about it.

A woman is raped, and dies in a back alley abortion. Another women dies in childbirth because she's forced, against medical advice, to carry a baby to term.

Unregulated banks speculate wildly, ruining homeowners, businesses and small investors. Corporations buy or bully their way out of accidents in an unsafe workplace. Political, judicial and media institutions protect the interests of giant corporations and a tiny elite of the most wealthy people.

Sound familiar?

Interestingly, these themes come out in Spoon River Anthology through a patchwork kind of reading -- as if they are a series of 'depositions' to be matched up against each other.

Makes sense really. After
all, Edgar Lee Masters was a career lawyer, and the son of a lawyer -- accustomed to taking depositions from witnesses, for all their lack of objectivity and self-serving nature -- and then stacking those depositions up against each other to see what patterns and truths emerge.

That's what I've been doing this week, examining the whole patchwork of dramatic monologues. It's startling to me how many of the issues Masters addresses are back in the national discourse -- the deleterious effects of materialism, capitalism, puritan zealotry, anti-rationalism, xenophobia and religious closemindedness.

Most of the characters in the collection are part victim and part perpetrator. That's a nuance which tends to confirm my sense that in an unhealthy society even the perpetrators are victims, forced by circumstances at least as much as their own weaknesses into becoming agents of its worst dynamics.

But some of the characters are unapologetic villains, like the banker Thomas Rhodes -- who even at death sneers at those he has ruled and rode over. The best he can offer the trampled down is an acknowledgement of how hard it is for 'small folk' to 'keep the soul from splitting.' Join the exploiters, he urges -- the ones who embrace corruption, 'seekers of earth's treasures, getters and hoarders of gold,' who are 'self contained, compact, harmonized, even to the end."
Masters does offer a glimpse of people who've managed to keep their souls together, however -- and who we might emulate. Like Lucinda Matlock, who is untouched by modern corruption and has conducted her life in accordance with a simpler and more innocent past. In her youth she went to dances, fell in love, married and had children. Over the course of her life, she spun, wove, kept house nursed the sick, made a garden, and for fun, she
    rambled over the fields where sang the larks,
   and by Spoon River gathered many a shell
   and many a flower and medicinal weed--
   shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.

At the age of 96, she'd live enough, that's all, and passed to a sweet repose.
Hard to emulate her. But then there's Fiddler Jones, who, through his focus on his art rather than possessions, manages to remain untouched by his lack of material success, and is therefore able to retain a Whitmanesque conception -- he sees Original Grace, and the transcendental hum, all around him, in all things. 'The earth keeps some vibration of joy," he declares, 'there in your hearts, and that is you.'

Because of his musical talent, he's called on to play so often for the people that he never has a chance to prosper or fail according to society's terms -- and it doesn't bother him one bit.
    I ended up with a broken fiddle
   and a broken laugh and a thousand memories
   and not a single regret.

Finally, and almost as a call to arms, Masters tells us through the voice of Jim Brown that it's up to each individual to decide which side they're on. You're either 'for men or for money,' says Brown. You're either 'for the people or against them.'

I suppose my poetic temperament makes me more of a Fiddler Jones type, happy with a broken fiddle, a broken laugh and a thousand memories. But t
his week as the Republican Party prepares to offer its heart and soul to the very people who would return us to the dark ages of willful ignorance, unchecked capitalism, and back alley abortions, I'm thinking that for America in 2012, a healthy dose of 'which side are you on' progressivism may be just what the doctor ordered. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

CONNECTING THE BOP: The How And The Why Of America's Heartland Music

Wow what a treat to visit with fellow poets and painters at the Pollock-Krasner House in Springs, LI, to share a reading for Jackson Pollock. No threat of rain or summer heat could slow us down or keep us from sharing our Jackson Pollock related inspiration.

For me it was especially gratifying to ‘connect the bop‘ -- ie, relate  the swirling circular and hugely energetic Pollock canvases to Whitman, to Charlie Parker and the KC vortex, to the bop prosodists of the 50s, and to my own work.

The KC vortex which produced bebop jazz. of course, but also  Thomas Hart Benton, indisputably Pollock’s mentor and whose abstract ideas about rhythm on the canvas transcend the WPA figurative aspects of his work in a manner that profoundly inform his work .

Musically stated, there’s the structural thing -- improvising off and around and beyond and back to the core statement. Being able to jump into the conversation (musical or visual) from anywhere on the scale. Using your woodshed skills to blast out an extended and irrepressible improvisation which seems beyond deliberation, inspired, almost autonomic -- but at its core, is deeply schooled. Camouflaging the subject, circling around it and going tangentially away from and back to it with sculpted micro-flourishes, teasing it out of perceptual existence and back in again. A rhythmic and tonal explosion that never loses its deep reference to the form. And finding the resolution, the landing point. Getting it back there.

It’s the essential HOW of bop, whether its Parker, Pollock or the prosodic flights of Kerouac, O'Hara and the rest.

Then there's the WHY (as jazz musician Tony Scott, born Tony Sciacca in NJ testified, 'I studied the how AND the why' of bop).

The range of emotional statements that can be sustained is wide. Bending the voice of the man, through the plaintive protestations and sly subversions of blues and jazz musicians finding solace, kicks, competition and comradery in the midst of Jim Crow America. The frenzied search for articulation of Pollock. The vernacular longings and raw industrial energies and arguments of Thomas Hart Benton.

The rebelliousness of the Beats and the aesthetic nuancing of the New York School poets. Their playfulness too, and the joyousness and transcendental celebration of our own Walt.

That's right, Whitman -- who in 1879 visited the grass prairie of Kansas, confluence of cattlemen, homesteaders, and declared that a pure new and original American voice would emerge from it.
Whitman didn't mention the big muddy river rolling down from the north, or the irrepressible blues & jazz current that would sweep upstream from New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta. He couldn't know that there would be cross-country trains carrying  car after car of popping bi-coastal swing musicians, cats overnighting in what amounted to a free-for-all laboratory at 18th and Vine; a place to stretch their wings in time and space, to experiment with their music, to transform it into something new.

Whitman didn't know it would be bop. But Whitman got it right. All those elements thrown into the hot crucible of America’s midsection added dimension and gave moment to an emergent American voice Whitman predicted would come.

Okay, a lot of it came to a head here in the Big Apple -- jazz clubs, juke joints, painters studios and writers' pads. And further on out, to Jackson Pollock's bucolic retreat in Springs, a shingled house beside the sheltered salt marshes of Gardiner's Bay.

But the roots go way deeper than that, deep into midwestern soil.

(Thanks to Tim Sullivan, Ros Brenner and Helen Harrison for organizing the poetry reading at Pollock-Krasner House, and to fellow poets Lucas Hunt, Michelle Whittaker, Max Wheat and Claire Schulman for adding their voices in)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

READING WHITMAN: The Gordon Parks Dimension

There’s an intriguing cultural cross-fertilization between the flint hills and prairies of eastern Kansas — a land of tallgrass prairie and thin-soiled grazing land, with KC as its urban hub — and the eastern seaboard, which Walt Whitman called home.
Oh it’s middle America out there all right, with its ball fields and ice cream fundraisers and shootings after midnight outside the local hamburger joint.

But consider these:

-Whitman visited the Kansas prairies and called them the future of American culture, in 1879.

-Teddy Roosevelt showed up at Osawatomie in 1911 to dedicate a park to the fiery abolitionist John Brown and kick off an attack on oligarchy and monopoly in America (one of the more electrifying speeches in American history, called ‘The New Nationalism.’)

-Politically, there’s the impact of midwestern progressivism embodied by Kansas journalists like William Allen White (Emporia Ks) and Julius Wayland (Girard Ks), whose overtly socialist paper “Appeal To Reason” published Eugene Debs, Mother Jones and Jack London — not to mention underwriting the undercover investigative journalism of Sinclair Lewis, which resulted in the great muckraker novel The Jungle.

-Then too there’s the activism of the radical coal miners of the Pittsburg area, commemorated by a sweeping mural at the Pittsburg Library with a depiction of the three day march of the “Army of the Amazons,’ thousands of minetown women rallying against strikebreakers during ‘three cold days in 1921.’ (

-Artistically, think Charlie Parker, Virgil Thomson, Langston Hughes, Ed Sanders — and Thomas Hart Benton, whose mentorship to Jackson Pollock has yet to befully recognized in the art world.

All of which provides context to the lifework of photographer Gordon Parks, who was reared in the slow-poking county-fair-going BBQ-eating 4H-club prairie town of Fort Scott, and his contribution to the KS-NY connection.

Park’s emergence on the scene in NYC as a photographer for Life was more than just an individual achievement  — in fact, he assiduously created a body of work which placed him as a key mid-20th century artistic advocate for the dignity of the underclass and the oppressed.

Let me put it this way. My visit to the Woody Guthrie Festival and the Gordon Parks Museum this week, to bring Whitman’s message of transcendental ‘this is what you shall do’ acceptance of others, had multidimensional references and connotations I hardly realized until I made the scene and checked things out.

As in previous years, the Okemah festival for Woody was enormously gratifying, further illustrating the connectedness of America’s great dust bowl balladeer to the entire nation and beyond, and positively declaring the place of Oklahoma poets in celebrating that (

But in Fort Scott, flanked by iconic Parks photos of Harlem families, street gangs, South American orphans and the inestimable ‘American Gothic,’ the words of Whitman, Steinbeck, Guthrie, Sandburg, Hughes and Maya Angelou achieved a new dimensionality I hadn’t really anticipated.

A fine crowd in a beautiful space at the local community college, the numbers swelled in part by good press coverage locally ( and folks who were in town for ‘family reunion week,’  a shout out to them.

This was also my first collaborative reading — and a very successful experiment, so a shout out too to traveling British poet Geraldine Green, who with her husband Geoff was also on a tour which included not only the Parks museum but the Woody Guthrie Festival and readings in Norman OK, Shawnee OK, Pittsburg KS and Kansas City.

In Fort Scott she and I fashioned a tandem reading of the Whitman and Beyond poets and additionally infused some Blake, Coleridge and Burns into the mix. A fabulous result, not least of which was how Geraldine brought down the house with Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise.’ I hope we’ll have a chance to reprise in future appearances.

Kudos and thanks to OK and KS poets who hosted us and read with us along the way, including Carol Hamilton, Dorothy Alexander, Nathan Brown, Carl Sennhein and Jim Spurr (OK); and Al Ortolani, JT Knoll and the good folks at Prospero’s Books in Kansas City (KS). And David Amram, ambassador of bop, who once again extemporized on piano behind two hours of Woody Guthrie lovin’ poets in Okemah.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

BEAT KANSAS: 'Pure Spring Water, Gathered In A Tower Where Florence Is Set On A Hill'

    'Anybody can make Paris holy, but I can make Topeka holy.'
     Jack Kerouac

    Us bi-coastal types tend to focus on New York and San Francisco as the dual poles of the Beat Generation. It's a superficial view at best -- the circumstances and personalities of the movement were fundamentally national in scope... from Neal Cassady's Denver connection to Bill Burroughs' place in Texas, and in every crazy encounter on the road from Chicago to Butte and on to Tangiers and Benares and Katmandu.

     Did I mention Kansas?

     The reference points are everywhere. Neal Cassady’s 30,000 word lost letter to Kerouac, progenitor of bop prosody hand scrawled en route to Kansas City. Kerouac’s 'Kansas fields  & night-cows in the secret wides, crackerbox towns with a sea at the end of every street.’ Old Bill Burroughs standing outside his home in Lawrence attempting to blow holes in some artwork with a handgun.  Maryville KS's Michael McClure of Six Gallery fame, who in 1964 stood on the beach with Kerouac in Bixby Canyon and heard him recite the tone-poem which concludes Big Sur. 

    The central figures in the Beat generation are all connected to America’s heartland, Second generation Beat constellation figures too -- Moon Dog, the mysterious character who played his drum in NYC doorways; Zap cartoon’s S Clay Wilson and Charley Plymell. Dennis Hopper emerged on the Venice Beach scene in LA from Dodge City. The Fugs’ Ed Sanders shook things up in lower Manhattan, but got his start in Kansas City.
     One has to mention too the KC jazz musicians-- Charlie Parker and Lester Young in particular -- whose aesthetic offered dimension and rootedness to Beat prosody, acknowledged in this well-known Kerouac passage from On The Road:
    Once there was Louis Armstrong blowing his beautiful top in the muds of New Orleans; before him the mad musicians who had paraded on official days and broke up their Sousa marches into ragtime. Then there was swing, and Roy Eldridge, vigorous and virile, blasting the horn for everything it had in waves of power and subtlety--leaning to it with glittering eyes and a lovely smile and sending it out broadcast to rock the jazz world.
    Then had come Charlie Parker, a kid in his mother's woodshed in Kansas City, blowing his taped-up alto among the logs, practicing on rainy days, coming out to watch the old swinging Basie and Benny Moten band that had Hot Lips Page and the rest Charlie Parker leaving home and coming to Harlem, and meeting mad Thelonious Monk and madder Gillespie--Charlie Parker in his early days when he was flipped and walked around in a circle while playing. Somewhat younger than Lester Young, also from KC, that gloomy, saintly goof in whom the history of jazz was wrapped; for when he held his horn high and horizontal from his mouth he blew the greatest; and as his hair grew longer and he got lazier and stretched-out, his horn came down halfway; till it finally fell all the way and today as he wears his thick-soled shoes so that he can't feel the sidewalks of life his horn is held weakly against his chest, and he blows cool and easy getout phrases. Here were the children of the American bop night.
     Historian Doug Brinkley's quoted as saying that Kerouac's writing was a 'Valentine to America,' but I like to think the relationship between those who love the world in each of its particulars, with a transcendental vision, gets a valentine back. 

     Meaning it's not Kerouac who makes Topeka holy, or Topeka that makes Kerouac holy. It's the mutuality between particulars, place and person. It's the vision thing.

      Sure seems that's the kind of mutuality -- the vision thing -- that happened to Allen Ginsberg as he raced across the great plains of America in the back of a Volkswagon bus in 1966, with a tape machine in his lap and Peter Orlovsky driving. 

    That's how Ginsberg gathered the material which later became the poem Wichita City Sutra, of particular power for me and in my opinion a worthy companion to the more well known Sunflower Sutra. Climaxing below a watertower ’where Florence is set on a hill’ as he and Orlovsky stop for tea & gas, the poem firmly demonstrates that the visionary transcendental moment can occur anywhere -- in this case, in the lonely dark Kansas night. 

     Here's an extract:    
Allen Ginsberg 
I'm an old man now, and a lonesome man in Kansas
          but not afraid
                    to speak my lonesomeness in a car,
                    because not only my lonesomeness
                                it's Ours, all over America,
                                                     O tender fellows--
                                & spoken lonesomeness is Prophecy
                                in the moon 100 years ago or in
                                          the middle of Kansas now.
It's not the vast plains mute our mouths
                                that fill at midnite with ecstatic language
            Not the empty sky that hides
                                           the feeling from our faces
            It's not a God that bore us that forbid
                     our Being, like a sunny rose
                                          all red with naked joy
                     between our eyes & bellies, yes
All we do is for this frightened thing
                     we call Love, want and lack --
            fear that we aren't the one whose body could be
                     beloved of all the brides of Kansas City,
                     kissed all over by every boy of Wichita--
            O but how many in their solitude weep aloud like me--
                     On the bridge over the Republican River
                                almost in tears to know
                                           how to speak the right language --
                     on the frosty broad road
                                uphill between highway embankments
                     I search for the language
                                          that is also yours--
                                almost all our language has been taxed by war.
Radio antennae high tension
           wires ranging from Junction City across the plains--
           highway cloverleaf sunk in a vast meadow
                                lanes curving past Abilene
                                          to Denver filled with old
                                                               heroes of love--
Now, speeding along the empty plain,
                      no giant demon machine
                                visible on the horizon
           but tiny human trees and wooden houses at the sky's edge
                      I claim my birthright!
                                reborn forever as long as Man
                                          in Kansas or other universe--Joy
                      reborn after the vast sadness of War Gods!
A lone man talking to myself, no house in the brown vastness to hear,
                      imaging the throng of Selves
                                 that make this nation one body of Prophecy
                                          languaged by Declaration as
I call all Powers of imagination
           to my side in this auto to make Prophecy
I lift my voice aloud,
            make Mantra of American language now,
                             I here declare the end of the War!
                                         Ancient days' Illusion!
                     and pronounce words beginning my own millennium.
Let the States tremble,
            let the Nation weep,
                       let Congress legislate it own delight
                                  let the President execute his own desire--
this Act done by my own voice,
                                          nameless Mystery--
published to my own senses,
                               blissfully received by my own form
            approved with pleasure by my sensations
                       accomplished in my own imagination
            60 miles from Wichita
                                          near El Dorado,
                                                     The Golden One,
in chill earthly mist
            houseless brown farmland plains rolling heavenward
                                                                        in every direction
     Sound good to you? Does to me. Good enough to figure that this month, as I travel through Oklahoma and Kansas, 
I'll pay a visit to Florence myself!
                    AG NOTE: "In 1965 I ran into Bob Dylan in SF and asked him for money to buy a 
                    tape machine. He gave me enough money to buy a small portable. I drove across 
                    country with the tape machine in the back of a Volkswagen bus from January on 
                    through March ‘ 66. Peter Orlovsky at the wheel and a little table in the Volkswagen 
                    camper in the back where I sat looking at the landscape and made a recorded time 
                    capsule collage of sensory imagery  -- the landscape, broadcasts from the car radio, 
                    conversations in the car tags, newspaper headlines, ruminations, the seeds of my own 
                    convictions in the back seat all alone."

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Teddy Roosevelt And "The New Nationalism"

Think Teddy Roosevelt and what comes to your mind?

Sagamore Hill? San Juan Hill? Yellowstone Park? The White House?

Try Osawatomie, Kansas.

If that name doesn’t ring a bell to you, here’s a little hint. Think John Brown, the fire-eating abolitionist.

Osawatomie Brown, they nicknamed him. Why? Because Osawatomie was the home base of John Brown, the radical abolitionist who engaged in violent rebellion against slavery.

It seems that the New England-born Brown witnessed his son shot and the town of Osawatomie burned to the ground in August 1856 by proslavery forces, during the period when the Kansas territory was at the vortex of national forces gripped in a desperate battle over whether it would be a free or a slave state.

I'll be headed to Osawatomie this summer too. Not just to feel the pulse of the place or to figuratively stand over John Brown's Body. But because of Teddy Roosevelt.

You see, it was to Osawatomie Kansas that Teddy Roosevelt came on Aug 31, 1910, a year after the conclusion of his presidency.

Osawatomie made the news last last year, of course, because President Obama chose it as a place with that historic resonance he was looking for to announce his own statements on American economic policy.

Roosevelt went there for a similar reason --  to deliver a speech, later called the "New Nationalism Address," to give a speech on historically symbolic turf. A speech which is now seen as one of the most important enunciations of progressive ideals in our nation’s history.

It was not TR’s first or last visit to Kansas. The hero of San Juan Hill and former Governor of New York showed up during a campaign visit in 1903, when he was running for Vice President. His “Ride Across Kansas’ was a whistlestop tour, it seems, but it attracted national attention for the adulation he received. “The applause was spontaneous and loud, and it appeared to come from people of all degrees of politics,’ noted the New York Times that year. “It was not so much for Roosevelt as a candidate for Vice President, but for ‘Teddy,’ the Rough Rider and the man.”

By 1910, Roosevelt had already served as President, fiught his political battles, taken on the Wall Street Trusts, and left office.

America's Rough Rider, recently retired, went on a safari to Africa, returned home to New York, and contemplated the political landscape before him.

Teddy Roosevelt was not done speaking out on the issues facing America.

"My proper task," wrote Roosevelt as he prepared the speech he was to give at the dedication of the John Brown Park, "is clearly to announce myself on the vital questions of the day, to set the standards so that it can be seen, and take a position that cannot be misunderstood.”

Among its tenets: Social responsibility of the wealthy. A progressive income tax. A graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes. Transparency in corporate enterprise.

Government supervision of capitalism. Judges that rule for human welfare over property interests. Reining in of ‘state’s rights’ demagogues, in favor of a Hamiltonian concept of federal power.

And a legislature that represents all the people -- not special interests, who ‘twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will.’

Roosevelt used the park dedication to attack the ideals of "state's right" demagogues, as he called them. He was interested in a Hamiltonian concept of appropriate use of federal power to protect the rights of individuals against those who would subvert them for personal or corporate gain.

When it came to the relationship between workers and owners, Roosevelt envisioned a balance between labor and capital.

    "Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed,. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." If that remark was original with me, I should be even more strongly denounced as a Communist agitator than I shall be anyhow. It is Lincoln's. I am only quoting it; and that is one side; that is the side the capitalist should hear. Now, let the working man hear his side. "Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights.... Nor should this lead to a war upon the owners of property. Property is the fruit of labor; . . . property is desirable; is a positive good in the world."

What Roosevelt decried was an imbalance. “Ruin in its worst form is inevitable if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few and the triumph in both politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism,” intoned Roosevelt before 30,000 listeners on the hot August plains of Kansas.

Sound familiar? It should. Roosevelt was a kind of a front man for the 1910 equivalent of the OWS crowd, engaged “with many of the same issues that confront us now, notably the power of finance and the dangers of concentrated economic power,” wrote the Washington Post in 2011.

President Obama's speech at Osawatomie, delivered in Dec 2011, was of the same ilk -- and powerful enough for the New York Times to declare it "the most potent blow the president has struck against the economic theory at the core of every Republican presidential candidacy and dear to the party’s leaders in Congress. The notion that the market will take care of all problems if taxes are kept low and regulations are minimized may look great on a bumper sticker, but, he said: “It doesn’t work. It has never worked.” Not before the Great Depression, not in the ’80s, and not in the last decade."

It is fitting but also somewhat sobering that both Roosevelt and Obama chose to speak out on the issue of economic justice in a park dedicated to John Brown, who stood against the forces of slavery in America with such violence that he was tried, convicted and sentenced to execution for treason because of his actions.

John Brown put his body on the line. Unflinchingly.  But before they could hang him, he declared this.  

    Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment,” said Brown after the verdict. “I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done - as I have always freely admitted I have done - in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right.”

Roosevelt wasn't hung. But he was derided by many in his day for his progressivism -- in fact he was called a socialist, a charge he dismissed as being ’a slander to socialists.’ And most of the principles he enunciated eventually saw the light of day as the 20th century unfolded.

While there are many who would argue that, in the 21st century, Roosevelt’s ideas are facing their most severe challenge in 100 years, they remain one of the clearest enunciations of progressive principles to be found.

A footnote: it seems his 1910 visit to Osawatomie Kansas to celebrate the John Brown was not his last to the “Sunflower State.”  He did return one last time -- in 1916, to rally Kansans for the war effort.

According to the New York Times, 100,000 people thronged the streets of Kansas City to see Roosevelt. It was a triumphant return, marred only by someone hurling an open jack knife at the beloved American hero.

The assailant, according to the newspaper account, was “a tall, slender man dressed in brown, who had apparently been drinking.” 

 The butt end of the knife, we’re told, hit the arm of one of Roosevelt’s secretaries harmlessly, clattered to the ground, and was picked up by an American Legionnaire who, “closing it carefully, handed it to a nearby policeman.”

“Col Roosevelt first heard of the incident when he was having luncheon at the Muelenbach Hotel as the guest of the Commercial Club,”
noted the Times reporter. “He put it aside with a laugh.”

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

“It’s Fun To Be Fooled/But It’s Better To Be Joe Gould”

Among the many individuals who have given life and color to the streets of Greenwich Village over the decades, one of the most singular was a Harvard graduate by the name of Joe Gould.

The story of Gould, whose life was detailed in a movie released in 2000 called "Joe Gould's Secret," is fairly well disseminated at this point. His confrontational demeanor and cryptic references to an 'Oral History Of Our Time' he was supposedly writing captured the imagination of everyone from e.e. cummings to New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, and eventually the filmmakers who created that movie.

Less well known, however, is that Joe Gould's last stand took place not on Bleecker Street. Five years after he disappeared from the Greenwich Village scene in 1952, amidst rumors that he had died or inherited money, the obituaries were written out for Joe Gould, who styled himself 'The Last Bohemian" prior to the Beat movement, stating that he had taken ill, gone from Columbus Hospital to Bellevue, and ultimately to Pilgrim State Hospital in Brentwood.

Like Carl Solomon, to whom Allen Ginsberg addressed his famous poem "Howl" in the mid-1950s, Joe Gould lived the last few years of his life in a hospital for the mentally ill.

Who was Joe Gould? And what was this supposed 9 million word oral history, scratched out in five and dime marbled notebooks? Was it a masterwork at all, or was Gould making it up as a story-telling point as he attempted to bum drinks in the local bars of Greenwich Village?

The answer to that question depends on whose version you hear.

Gould came from Norwood, near Boston, from an old New England family that settled the region as far back as 1635. In 1916 he came to New York and achieved a reputation around Greenwich Village, refusing to do any work except to solicit money for the "Joe Gould Fund." While ostensibly at work on his great opus -- one year he held a party mark the completion of 7.3 million words! -- he was busier hanging around and hustling crowds.

His life was colorful according to essayist Dan Balaban, who noted that Gould's day  "usually began in one of the cheap cafés that dotted the West Side in that era. Though he ate a lot of ketchup consommé, he was sometimes flush enough to indulge his taste for seafood ...Evenings found him cadging drinks at the Minetta. Sometimes he crashed the Raven's Poetry Club, reciting doggerel like "A Flatbush Grows in Brooklyn":

Said Johnny Cashmore
To little Noel Coward,
We want no trash more,
Brooklyn can't be defloward.

Here's another famed comment by the irascible Mr Gould -- 

                My Religion

                In the winter I’m a Buddhist
                And in summer I’m a nudist

and this:

                I would give a month’s salary to sleep with you, my dear
                If I worked for the government at a dollar a year.

Gould cut a colorful figure in Greenwich Village. One of his archetypal performances revolved around his ability to speak seagull -- he claimed he could translate any poem into seagull, flapping his wings and skreeking. He claimed that the reason he was blackballed from the 50s lefty art world was a “proletarian poem” which he recited, called “The Barricades:”

This prissy hedge in front of the Brevoort
Is but a symbol of the coming revolution.
These are the barricades,
The barricades,
The barricades.
And behind these barricades,
Behind these barricades,
Behind these barricades,
The Comrades die!
The Comrades die!
The Comrades die!
And behind these barricades,
The Comrades die --
Of overeating.

Here's Gould's word on the most renowned literary zine of the era, The Dial, which actually published Gould’s essay, “Civilization," on its demise:

Who killed the Dial?
Who killed the Dial?
“I,” said Joe Gould,
“With my inimitable style,
“I killed the Dial.”

Aside from his wit and colorful behavior, however, the mystery of his Oral History Of Our Time remains the most talked about element in his legacy.

In Joe Gould's Secret, filmmaker Stanley Tucci tells the story of two men, one of whom would tell the other's story: famed The New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell and New York bohemian Joe Gould. According to the film one day, the softspoken writer encounters Gould, portrayed by Ian Holm. Yankee-born and Harvard-educated, the disheveled Gould is a scholar of the NYC streets. Gould's life's work, Mitchell learns, is "The Oral History of Our Time," a transcription of hundreds of conversations, remarks, and essays about what he has seen and heard. "Every day," writes Mitchell in The New Yorker, "even when he has a bad hangover or even when he is weak and listless from hunger, Joe Gould writes in school composition books."  After Mitchell's story appeared in The New Yorker, Gould became a minor celebrity.

According to Gould himself, the idea for the Oral History came to him while he was working as a junior police reporter in New York in 1917. He was recovering from a hangover at police headquarters one summer morning when the concept dawned. He immediately quit his job to work on the book.

He explained: ' . . . I would spend the rest of my life going about the city listening to people -- eavesdropping, if necessary -- and writing down whatever I heard them say that sounded revealing to me, no matter how boring or idiotic or vulgar or obscene it might sound to others. I could see the whole thing in my mind -- long-winded conversations and short and snappy conversations, brilliant conversations and foolish conversations, curses, catch phrases, coarse remarks, snatches of quarrels, the mutterings of drunks and crazy people, the entreaties of beggars and bums, the propositions of prostitutes, the spiels of pitchmen and peddlers, the sermons of street preachers, shouts in the night, wild rumours, cries from the heart. I decided right then and there that I couldn't possibly continue to hold my job, because it would take up time that I should devote to the Oral History, and I resolved that I would never again accept regular employment unless I absolutely had to or starve but would cut my wants down to the bare bones and depend on friends and well-wishers to see me through. The idea for the Oral History occurred to me around half past ten. Around a quarter to eleven, I stood up and went to a telephone and quit my job . . .'Since that fateful morning . . . the Oral History has been my rope and my scaffold, my bed and my board, my wife and my floozy, my wound and the salt on it, my whiskey and my aspirin, and my rock and my salvation. It is the only thing that matters a damn to me. All else is dross.'

But there's a problem with all that. Not only is Gould an irascible man -- despite being befriended by the likes of William Saroyan, Eugene O'Neill and ee cummings -- but he refuses to show his oral history to anyone.

ee cummings, who wrote several poems about Gould, including a long poem with these lines in it: 'little joe gould has lost his teeth and doesn't know where to find them,' had his doubts. Significantly, another line in cummings' poem suggests he knew there was something amiss about the alleged oral history. 'a myth is as good as a mile,' wrote cummings. 'but little joe gould's quote oral/history unquote might (publishers note) be entitled a wraith's progress...'

The movie version of the story strongly suggests that no notebooks every existed. In his obituary, friends said they had no idea what happened to the histories.

However, in the past year or so some of the man's writing has turned up. Eleven of Gould's notebooks were recently rediscovered in an archive in NYU. According to the Village Voice, Gould's diary, which passed through several hands before being purchased by and long forgotten in NYU's Fales Collection, "offers a rare glimpse of the bombastic, ragged five-foot-four Harvard graduate in his own words."

In the end, however, the notebooks bolster rather than contradict the suspicions of Cummings and Mitchell. Instead of a treasure trove of anecdotes into the life and times of Greenwich Village, the books, it has been asserted, was little more than a dry, mechanical day by day account of  Gould's life, including little more than his idiosyncratic foibles, his personal toiletry and his eating habits.

A rather inglorious conclusion to the story, it would seem, to a man whose funeral was attended by NBC, CBS and all the print media.

Yet all is not lost for old Joe Gould. I heard, for example, his portrait hangs in the Minetta Tavern. And so long as ee cummings' work is admired, Gould's name will continue to make the anthologies -- albeit as a footnote -- and hang around gathering dust on college shelves. 

                Amérique Je T'Aime and it may be fun to be fooled
                but it's more fun to be little joe gould

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Much is made of Walt Whitman's misadventures as a school teacher in Southold, on Long Island's North Fork. Less well known, save among serious Whitman scholars, is the fact that America’s Good Gray poet regularly later frequented a nearby town -- the burgeoning whaling town of Greenport -- from his early 20s, in the 1840s, through the beginning of the Civil War.

There was a good reason for it -- a dutiful family member in the Whitman household, Walt seems to have felt a responsibility to support Mary Elizabeth, his younger sister, who was in something of a difficult marriage to one Ansel Van Nostrand, a local ship builder.

Ansel, accounts have it, was a heavy drinker, and despite fathering several children with Mary (constituting the principle line of descent for Walt Whitman Sr and Louisa Van Velsor), he did not make things easy on his wife.

The situation may have been problemmatic, but the ride out was a pleasant one for the gregarious Whitman, we're told -- though somewhat more of a commitment than hopping on the Hampton Jitney like people do these days. By horse-drawn coach, t took two and a half days from Brooklyn to the North Fork of Long Island.

Still, Whitman is said to have made the most of the trip, and in typical fashion enjoyed riding out in the open air with the driver, a fellow named Hull Conklin.

Though he had family reasons as a pretext for his stay, in his written recollections Whitman focuses more on the literary and bucolic aspects of his visits to Mary Elizabeth. “I used to go off, sometimes for a week at a stretch, down in the country…,“ he says in A Backward Glance Over Travel‘d Roads (1888). “in the presence of outdoor influences I went over thoroughly the Old and New Testaments and… absorbed Shakespeare, Ossian, the best translated versions of Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, the old German Nibelungen, the ancient Hindoo poems, and one or two other masterpieces, Dante Among them. As it happened, I read the latter mostly in an old wood.“

Also, the Iliad “…(which) I first read thoroughly…in a sheltered hollow of rocks and sand, with the sea on each side.”

Whitman tips his hat to these influences in shaping his own work. “If I had not stood before those poems with uncover'd head, fully aware of their colossal grandeur and beauty of form and spirit, I could not have written "Leaves of Grass,“ he writes in A Backward Glance.

But ever the 'Barbaric Yawp' guy, Whitman throws in more than a few caveats.

In fact, Walt ranks the importance of his literary scholarship decidely below the experience of nature, placing himself squarely in the camp of contemporaries John Burroughs and Henry David Thoreau. “I have wonder'd since why I was not overwhelm'd by those mighty masters. Likely because I read them, as described, in the full presence of Nature, under the sun, with the far-spreading landscape and vistas, or the sea rolling in.”

Anyhow the literature of the Old World may have splendid and exceptional myths, but it's also mired in “feudalism, conquest, caste, dynastic wars,” continues Whitman. America, he argues, needs something new. “The New World needs the poems of … democratic average and basic equality... In the centre of all, and object of all, stands the Human Being, towards whose heroic and spiritual evolution poems and everything directly or indirectly tend.”

Whitman visited the North Fork of Long Island for decades, usually in the summer or fall. Sometimes staying with Mary and Ansel at their home near the corner of South and Third Street in Greenport, other times in one of the various inns in the growing town. By the 1850s he was riding out on the Long Island Railroad, clear to Orient.

When he wasn't tending to family matters or wandering the countryside, Whitman hung about town. He’d fish from the piers, engage the locals in conversation, and sometimes strike up somewhat flirtatious friendships. It was, said Walt, an opportunity to ‘scare up’ examples of humanity in all its display -- from the heroic and spiritually involved to the mundane.

How mundane? In one telling, if anecdotal, incident, a boatload of 19th century pleasure-seekers basically pick him up for a jaunt out to Montauk Point, where they all spend the night -- on board the sloop, moored under the stars.

The story's opaque, bourgeois and worldly. We find Walt quietly fishing off the end of the Greenport town dock when he is whisked away by a sloop full of lively girls and a clergyman. "The girls were unaffected ... and the minister laughed and told stories and ate luncheons, just like a common man, which is quite remarkable for a country clergyman," notes biographer Jerome Loving in his book ‘Walt Whitman: Song of Himself.’

One suspects Thoreau might have disapproved -- there was much throwing of hats in the air and other displays of mid nineteenth century merriness. Whitman readily confesses they “hurled stones at the shrieking sea-gulls, mocked the wind, and imitated the cries of various animals in a style that beat nature all out!"

OK. On the face of it, it's not one for the 'Hindoo texts'... sounds a bit like a 19th century tailgate party. But as recollected by Whitman there's that 'something else' going, a perception given to us by one of the great American Transcendentalists, an experience in possession of a quality of magic and charm that communicates itself 150 years since the incident occured.

Yet on reflection, America's Good Gray Poet manages to find the transcendental center before concluding his reminiscence:to bend over and look at the ripples as the prow divided the water -- to lie on my back and to breathe and live in that sweet air and clear sunlight -- to hear the musical chatter of the girls, as they pursued their own glee -- was happiness enough for one day." 

That's why to this day, I like to return to old Walt and his reminiscences. Reading his words, it's neither1862 or 2012 anymore. You can almost forget about the world and its troubles for a moment. You can almost hear Whitman hear it. Feel Whitman feel it.You can almost lie back and put your hand in the water and experience the plashing waters yourself.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Martin Espada Walks With Walt

Martin Espada and Walt Whitman. It should come as no surprise that Martin Espada's got an affinity for the guy.

Think about it. Better yet, read about it.

An inveterate advocate for the disenfranchised in America, Espada -- this year's poet in residence at the Whitman Birthplace in West Hills LI -- announced his feelings about Whitman loud and clear back in 2005 when he declared in an interview with the Walt Whitman Quarterly that while America as a society is still not ready for the Good Gray Poet's message, poets like him are.

"In a really tangible way, we’re not ready for Whitman as a society,"
said Espada in the interview ( "We’re still not ready for his message of radical egalitarianism; we’re certainly not ready for his expressions of compassion for everyone and many of us, I should add, are not ready for his sexuality."

The whole interview can be read on Espada's website. But a few excerpts are sufficient to reveal how profoundly Espada has thought through his connection to Whitman, and the importance of his message today.

"I had to come to Whitman on my own and very slowly," says Espada, who will be reading at the Whitman birthplace on Saturday, Jun 2. "When I did, I realized something, which is that I had been reading Whitman all along without knowing it. His influence is that pervasive. You can read a poet like Allen Ginsberg or, for that matter, a poet like Pablo Neruda and not realize you’re reading Whitman."

Whitman, as an iconic and multivariegated American poet, is a touchstone for a host of ideas and points of view. But it's no surprise what particular part of Whitman most appeals to Martin Espada -- Whitman the advocate. "If you look at the 1855 introduction to Leaves of Grass – the first edition – you’ll find a passage that’s very telling when it comes to Whitman the advocate. It’s Whitman there who says that the duty of the poet is to “cheer up slaves and horrify despots.” I can identify with that."

Espada keeps company with Jack Kerouac in targeting that line.

Kerouac, in Dharma Bums, says this: i've been reading whitman, you know what he says, cheer up slaves, and horrify foreign despots, he means that's the attitude for the bard, the zen lunacy bard of old desert paths, see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, dharma bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and there have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn't really want anyway such as refrigerators, tv sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume... 

Kerouac gets an anti consumer bop lunacy kick out of Whitman. By contrast, Espada's point is decidely more political -- and pointed.

"In Leaves of Grass you are immediately struck by Whitman’s faith both in poetry and in democracy. It’s a faith that we need to reassert in these days. Certainly, I think the universal compassion expressed in Leaves of Grass has to be reasserted. This is another timely lesson for us now. It’s not a coincidence that certain kinds of people recur throughout his work, especially in “Song of Myself.” We can see the pattern by which prisoners, prostitutes and slaves keep cropping up in Whitman’s verse. He makes continual statements of solidarity with these most marginalized of people. We need more of that today.”

Those who attend Espada's reading on Saturday June 2nd are likely to get a healthy dose of Whitman's faith and message, filtered through the eyes, ears and voice of a poet and a man whose viewpoint so aligns with that of Walt that he once stood before a commencement hall at Hampshire College and declared this:

"Make sure that compassion is the guiding principle of your republic, the pulse of your poetry. Walt Whitman, the bard of prisoners, prostitutes and slaves, insists that 'whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks/to his own funeral dressed in his shroud."

I can roll with that.


Martin Espada Walks with Whitman as this year's poet in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace in West Hills, LI. Espada will be teaching a Master Class Sat Jun 2 2012 at midday, and reading that evening at 5 p.m. Visit their website for details:

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Gathering Together: Mike Watt's Common Ground

They're calling it 'hellride east,' but when Mike Watt comes to NYC Wednesday May 2 to the Poisson Rouge, there'll be more than your regulation  'hoot, jam, thud and stooge' work going down.

The way I reckon it, it'll be a chance to gather with those who dare to dream as individuals, but travel together as a clan. With tolerance. To celebrate, as Mike Watt terms it, The Big Love.

If that sounds like making much of a thing, listen to Mike Watt's take on Walt Whitman

That's right, Whitman. 

Art Rock/Post-Punk/Jazz/Improv credentials aside, I was sold on this guy Mike Watt the minute I saw the Youtube of him at Whitman's grave in Camden NJ. (

Watt articulates a vision of Whitman and Leaves of Grass that, even filtered as it is through the crackling imperfections of a homemade Youtube vid, is as startlingly visionary as the Good Gray Poet himself. 

Leaves of Grass, says Watt, has got this tolerant open mind. When I'm reading it, it's like goddamn, my life's in this stuff. I thought about this stuff, the very pragmatic things to be done to make it work. Put a record together a tour together play with my bands. 

 Watt's keenly attuned to the historic context.  (Whitman's) first goal was to stop the war that was coming. He wrote it in 1855 -- the war was in 1861 -- but it was a slow slide the country was going in. Everybody knew it was coming and they felt helpless but he said, 'I'll write a poem to try to heal us, somehow, from warring.

This cat is like, you know what, you gotta be tolerant if you really want to make the real dream he saw. The one that resonates in me, the only one that makes sense if you're gonna call it a country, the idea of a place where we all live. 

You gotta dare like this man to dream big.

Rather than herd, the more generous idea is common ground. Then you have respect. That's a lot different from conformity and goosestepping. What Whitman's saying is if you want real togetherness then you have to have tolerance because we are separate cats, we don't dream by committee."

If that's not some cool shit, then you're not paying attention.

Mike Watt's music is a thing to behold, too, if you haven't heard it. Here's a great example, 'Chinese Firedrill."

living this life
is like trying to learn latin
in a chinese firedrill

The thing at Poisson Rouge itself on May 2 is a celebration of a most excellent book by Watt, put out by Three Rooms Press and having its NYC debut prior to being launched May 5 at Beyond Baroque in LA.  The book's called "Mike Watt: On and Off Bass," it's got poetry and a lot of pictures Watt took while kayaking off the coast of San Pedro where he lives. Jack Black likes it.

I'm not into kayaks, but I like this guy. I think what he said about Whitman is the shit. And I'm going down to Poisson Rouge and hear from the man himself. 

Why not? Like Mike Watt says, it's common ground.

(Three Rooms Press & CEP Presents: NYC launch for “Mike Watt: On and Off Bass” at Le Poisson Rouge. Featuring HELLRIDE EAST with Mike Watt + J Mascis + Murph, plus Appomattox and Dead Trend, and a reading and signing by Mike Watt along with additional very special guests. Book available for purchase at event. Advance Tickets ($20):

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Night I Opened For Levon Helm

I still remember the cold February night in 2003 I opened for Levon Helm at a honkytonk down by the railroad tracks in Huntington, LI, called Leavy's Last Stop.

About half a block beyond where urban renewal in the '60s stopped, leaving some empty old buildings for the down-and-out and honky-tonkers to continue to exist in an otherwise gentrified town.

"Leavy's Last Stop," not the end of one road or the beginning of another, just some place which was no place at all -- but at the same time square in the heart of some unexplainable thing or moment in time and therefore a vital, necessary place.

A bar for ex-cheerleaders and washed up boxers, firemen and their wives, landscapers and truckers and lean looking country and western types, plumbers and paving contractors and a psychiatrist with a porsche or two also mixing in, because he remembers what it was he loved about being alive and in the world before he stopped loving the world and started "working" in it -- something he loved in the blue smoke of a honkytonk in a college town he went to and before he had to settle down to a lifetime cutting away at the rot in people's minds or paving it over.

And a number of beat musicians with no gig to go to even though it was Saturday night, and besides they heard that Levon Helm was in town and playing with a pickup band and maybe they might just get asked to sit in for a song or do a set, or either they already had been asked and were waiting their turn.

A legend! Levon Helm in a honkytonk in Huntington Station and no spotlight on the man and not even a miked drumset. You could probably hire him for your kid's birthday party, yet he played with Dylan, his wheel was on fire he was driving ol' dixie down -- big pink last waltz Levon Helm, made songs that Joan Baez covered but which grew out of something funky and true blue Arkansas cotton roots.

It was Scotto's idea really. He got Levon to come and additionally had this notion that I belonged in front of a bar crowd, a poet in a rock setting can work okay he said, if you handle it right. That was his area and anyway I didn't mind. Scotto handles things, ska bands blues singers up and comers down and outers, he saw me back in the sixties when I was almost famous in an r&b band and figured I could still be worked into the bar scene and furthermore add some class to it.

Scotto said it'll go like this, he'll introduce George the poet, turn the spotlight on the stool and go! It'll add a little surreal moment to the evening, he said, cool the place down bring it into focus in the middle of the mayhem and beer and anger and sweat, anyway we're giving it a go.

I do know a crowd when I see one, and the place was jamming -- cars everywhere, hundreds of people inside the place. Scant attention paid to the warm-up group from NYC, a guy with his shirt hanging out and rubbing his hair while he sang, acting as if he just woke up and found himself in front of three hundred people and was surprised by it though not all that displeased, backed by his friend or roommate with an electrified acoustic guitar, whanging away with big stroking twelvestring chords. 

"That's a John Lennon guitar" said some guy in a checked shirt, near where I'm standing, quiet-like, practicing the phrase two or three times, when the two of them are done performing and get off the stage he says it again hoping they'll hear him, "that's a John Lennon guitar."

I am wearing a checked shirt too, everybody's wearing checked shirts, and I'm standing next to an amp and waiting for my cue, and Scotto is looking serious and anxious over the heads of all those people until he sees me and then he comes over leans forward grips my hand and says "a consummate professional! right where I need you to be, man!"

So I stood there in front of the band and Levon Helm in his lair of drums and snares and cymbals, and I looked out over the people, some crowd standing in front of the stage, and said the word cotton pickin' three times, and read a poem over everybody's head. 

Pointed it at the heart of some invisible imaginary person in the back of the room, some person who was attentive and really listening and maybe even hearing, though he or she didn't expect that to happen at all and furthermore couldn't see me, some person I could reach with my words, something that would go over easy.

And it did go over easy, though I felt like a preacher giving the benediction before a brawl. A number of the gals in the audience ooohed and ahhhed and some of the guys did too, but some others didn't, they coughed and looked at each other and pulled at their bottles and pretended I wasn't happening or really there. They weren't obnoxious about it just grimly polite and inwardly inattentive because it was an official sanctioned moment on stage, I was authorized to read them poetry, how long could it take anyhow, and besides they were patriotic god fearing people and not just because of 9-11, these were not brawlers, they had jobs to go to Monday morning, they just drank their beer and watched me and waited for Levon.

I didn't detain them long - they got their Levon and the rest of his band and I got to open for Levon Helm.

But the highlight for me was meeting old Levon beforehand, a very cool experience, with that Burgess Meredith glint in his eye like he's hip to the true energy going down everywhere around him, not just what ordinary people think is going down, which is false and petty and superficial. 

It happened like this: Scotto brought me downstairs into the basement for pictures. We sat in front of a white sheet that had been draped over an ice cooler as a backdrop, it was the basement where roaches and moldy couches and broken chairs go, low ceilings, stacked cases of Budweiser, leaky pipes, the lair of most bands really, from here to Cleveland and halfway back.

And Scotto tells Levon I'm a local poet and used to play soul music and Levon smiles and likes that. And we drink some of those beers in the bottles in the Budweiser cases. Levon and me and the band, subterranean and connected and silent.

The beer was warm. The cellar was cold. After awhile I figured I should ask him something, so I said hey Levon did you ever pick cotton on that Arkansas farm he grew up on but he said he hadn't.

Then it was time to go upstairs and go on stage and we did. It was all very peaceful and easy.