John Macker on Stuart Z. Perkoff

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Stuart Z. Perkoff

By John Macker

The Poet is the world’s remembrancer.” [1]
 -Lawrence Lipton

“He told of taking acid in situations that would terrify me,
for instance, a jail cell in Terminal Island.”
-Robert Creeley on Stuart,
from his foreword to Voices Of The Lady: Collected Poems, Stuart Z. Perkoff

Stuart Z. Perkoff was the Southern California Beat Generation’s tortured over soul who gave that movement a lot of its spirit, its sense of place and its relevance. By the end of his life, Stuart would manifest everything that was righteous, precociously outlaw and sui generis about Venice, CA before the bad press and the cops cracked down on the bikers and drug dealers. He was friend and mentor to a generation of wild, original bohemian wordslingers who were (mostly) accepted into the larger extended family of the Beat Generation, in the 1950’s. 

     Early on, Stuart was befriended by the L.A. intellectual cum hipster/novelist Lawrence Lipton, who hosted “salons” that attracted the hip, the disenfranchised, the poets and painters, the poseurs, the dilettantes. Poets like David Meltzer, Tony Scibella, John Thomas, Philomene Long, Bruce Boyd, Robert Alexander, Alexander Trocchi, Stuart, and others, sought out kindred spirits within Lipton’s ever-evolving sphere. (Jack Kerouac had even showed up at one point, with Steve Allen, all surly and swollen and drunk to his core). The Holy Barbarians, Lipton’s best-selling account of this era and its characters was published in 1959 and is now highly collectible in hardcover.

     Stuart appeared as a successful contestant on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life. He also realized the poet’s vulnerability in the media eye once national word got out about Venice’s role as a harbor for the beatniks’ dark side. The poets and artists (such as Wallace Berman, Ben Talbert, George Herms and John Altoon) of Venice West were suddenly catapulted into the spotlight for most of the wrong reasons, and, subsequently, became objects of ridicule and satire in the press. He disdained such displays and in Jack Hirschman’s generous words, “preferred anonymous best of all.” [2]

     Despite all this he and Lipton were the subjects of John Arthur Maynard’s respectful biography Venice West: The Beat Generation in Southern California. (Rutgers Univ. Press, 1991.) Much of Stuart’s close friend Tony Scibella’s contribution to that book was through an interview I did with him in Denver, in 1986 and originally published in the magazine, Moravagine.3.

     Stuart appeared along with the best poets America had to offer in Donald Allen’s historic anthology, The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. In its scope, originality and audacity it has yet to be rivaled. Although many of the poets included were Stuart’s good friends, he ended up changing the lives of his closest poet-companions, the painter/collagist Tony Scibella, New York gangster/poet-with-portfolio Frank T. Rios and poet/publisher James Ryan Morris.

His rogue early books appeared in mostly soft cover, small press editions lovingly produced by publisher friends. He spent some time in prison for drug offenses in the late 60’s-early 70’s which he never really recovered from and which truncated his publishing “career”. Kowboy Pomes, Eat The Earth, Alphabet, Only Just Above The Ground, some of his best writing— after he had morphed into a great, grey-bearded long-haired bear of a poet— came out in the short span between prison release and his untimely death from cancer at 43 in 1974. Jonathan Williams had published Perkoff’s seminal and haunting, The Suicide Room, in 1956. 

In the mid 90’s, Stuart’s older brother Gerald approached Tony Scibella and others about collecting Stuart’s work into one volume. Later, Gerald contacted Allen Ginsberg about publication of this manuscript and Allen led him to Maine’s National Poetry Foundation, partially funded by Stephen King. In 1998, Voices Of The Lady: Collected Poems appeared with an honorable and insightful  preface by Robert Creeley. It covers all of Stuart’s published work. A substantial tome by any standards and an outlaw masterpiece by a true rebel –Jewish mystic, ex-con, wordslinging junkie genius whose influence is still being felt.

    For 20 years now, I’ve considered Stuart Perkoff a kind of guardian angel riding point  into America’s voodoo bone darkness. I still on occasion sit my wife down by candlelight with two shots of Herradura, and read some of Stuart’s words out loud. They can still send chills up my spine just like they did when the late Denver poet Larry Lake first handed me a copy of Perkoff’s Visions for the Tribe. I couldn’t seek the muse’s touch without encountering Stuart Perkoff’s shadow on the trail. His language, its musicality, its exhortative cadence and jazz rhythms: as Robert Creeley wrote in the preface to Voices of the Lady, “Bobbie Louise Hawkins says that Stuart Perkoff was the only one she knew who could use the common street talk, the then hip phrasing, in a way that felt undramatic, natural, not just an attempt to be like some other side of life or person.” [3]  

Like it or not, being alive finds its own way to live of necessity.” [4]

                                                                   -Robert Creeley

Friends, lovers, muse, children, countrymen, peers, Meltzer, Tristan Tzara, Gary Cooper, Charles Mingus, John Garfield, John Thomas, Thelonious Monk, Kirby Doyle, Dylan Thomas, Abbot Kinney (founder of Venice, CA.), Philomene Long, Ben Talbert, Stuart wrote poems to them all, in all shapes and sizes: hip theatrical dialogue, short prose, spontaneous short line, invocation, many without titles, just Stuart riffing to the earth and sky, praying the poem gets riffed back to him by the gulls, the waves of his beloved “moonwash sea”, echoing off the voices of brother poets, guided by the sound emanating from the Lady’s lips. Stuart’s muse was external, an out of body experience, the “Lady” of his life, cosmic goddess she-fire chanted down to earth and into his soul by the uncharted intensity of his poetics.

     As Tony Scibella has said, as close as the Venice 3 were, none of them sounded like the other and Stuart didn’t sound like anybody. His readings were legendary for his basso profundo voice and intonation, very formal, rabbinical even. 

     As far back as 1951, poet Charles Olson, on the occasion of Stuart’s poems being published in Cid Corman’s Origin 2, recognized his impact:  “i have just been telling creeley how very moved i was last night to find you there (origin 2) with us

                                            That those
two poems of yrs belong with us; and are something neither of us,
or anyone else, can visit as you can such another hell . . .” [5]

Stuart’s “another hell” was on earth, within a dysfunctional family, in the derangement of his senses by heroin and other drugs, the expectations of a soul- destroying, “responsible” society spawned by victory over Japan and Germany, and a cold war that had addicted itself to world arms escalation and the grim potentiality of nuclear annihilation. Stuart recognized the shadow of fear but refused to reside within it. Death was always available, every day, another shadow, kin. But he wrote the Hell out of it, the sweating threat of it, every day, his health and blood on the line, one word ahead of another, in the Lady’s light.

     On his deathbed, he was attended by two Ladies, his muse, ever hovering, feeding him lines until the end and one of flesh, his last love, the fine poet, convent renegade and self-proclaimed “queen of bohemia”, Philomene Long, who captured, on tape, his final words. For the rest of us there is the last poem in Voices Of The Lady, another untitled, handwritten, taken off Stuart’s wall shortly before his death:

So black, the visions. That’s why they
Linked gaunted arms & stumbled towards
the flames in a feeble dance of celeb-
rations. For the visions cannot be
denied, reality is irrevocable &
so, precisely there they found joy
& song.
              Grant me that strength
he who must remain
unnamed. [6]

Notes:

  1. Lipton, Lawrence The Holy Barbarians  NY: Julian Messner, 1959.
  2. Hirschman, Jack  Privately printed broadside poem, 1998. Used by permission
  3. Perkoff, Gerald T. editor. Voices of the Lady: Collected Poems Stuart Z. Perkoff. Maine: The National Poetry Foundation, 1998. From introduction by Robert Creeley.
  4. Ibid. pg. 12
  5. Ibid. pg. 11
  6. Ibid. pg. 462

 

About the Author: John Macker’s latest books are Atlas of Wolves (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019) and The Blues Drink Your Dreams Away: Selected Poems 1983-2018 (Stubborn Mule Press, 2018 and a finalist for a New Mexico/Arizona Book Award.) Macker has lived in Northern New Mexico for 24 years.

John Macker: “Abundance “

 

 

Abundance     
                 – For Stewart Warren

An 80 year old woman in New Mexico
does tai chi in the dog park
in an abundance of presence
shares the rhythms of her age
gathers in and then releases the
shiftless summer air.     
In Iceland activists hold a funeral for a famous
glacier, on the permanent plaque they 
placed, in English and Icelandic, 
is written to the children:

Only you know if we did it.

In Auden’s memorial poem to Yeats
he wrote: Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Out the window a police car siren’s
pulsating shriek cleaves the morning
into two organic halves, one an act of faith
the other, not so much. We were instructed
by the nuns to say a prayer or cross
ourselves every time we heard one 
until the danger became
innocent whispered echo.

As if nobody had been hurt.

Ireland will plant 400 million trees in the
next 20 years to combat climate change.
So many more will recognize El Degűello
when they hear it than those who’ve
memorized “The Second Coming”. 
A poet friend in New Mexico 
in his last days of hospice
always traveled his own rivers
now they change course, fill him
with their own abundance, tell him
we have all the time in the world.

The purple morning uplifted cosmos petals
a day after rain and the land which has withstood
the emancipation of all these latest hells

never stops singing.

 

About the Author: John Macker’s latest books are Atlas of Wolves (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019) and The Blues Drink Your Dreams Away: Selected Poems 1983-2018 (Stubborn Mule Press, 2018 and a finalist for a New Mexico/Arizona Book Award.) Macker has lived in Northern New Mexico for 24 years.

 

More By John Macker:

Last Riff For Chet

 

Image Credit: William Henry Jackson “Embudo, New Mexico” (1882) Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

John Macker: “Last Riff for Chet”

 

Last Riff for Chet

Chet Baker used to bend over
his horn like the saddest, most suffering flower
speak into it like an echo does in dream
coaxing faded blossoms from the air
gathering them in breath to the place
on earth he felt closest to
trembling with shadows
then mutate their fragrances into a
civilization of invisible words as if
every spring, trigger-fingered
April’s bent their music to the ground
coaxing forth rose after rose
their powder-burned faces
bold, fragrant, strained, maverick
delivering echo after echo.

Chet sounded the blues,
riffed circles around the discordant rainbows
of romance in the dark until 
they drifted so close
you could pluck them like strings:
standing there streetlamp insouciant 
smoking the heroin gun of Paris
blowing interstellar lullabies
working his own myth into the 
hard ground
while I’m bent over this ancient
jukebox in the Lariat Bar
hit parade reduced to a row of square
buttons I punch into entropy.

At last, I find Chet as he empties a 
chamber of pure blue language
onto a white tablecloth
opens the window to each new bloom
with his lips
as he always has,
saying something pure to the earth
knowing no surrender is a cliché.
He had chiseled features.  
There’s a plaque for him in Amsterdam
outside the Hotel
Prins Hendrik at the last spot
he soared through life
on his way  
to the ground.

 

About the Author: John Macker’s latest books are Atlas of Wolves (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019) and The Blues Drink Your Dreams Away: Selected Poems 1983-2018 (Stubborn Mule Press, 2018 and a finalist for a New Mexico/Arizona Book Award.) Macker has lived in Northern New Mexico for 24 years.

“Acetylene Sunsets: Edward Dorn’s Recollections of Gran Apacheria” By John Macker

 

Acetylene Sunsets:

Edward Dorn’s Recollections of Gran Apacheria

By John Macker

“In the internal resistance of his thought, Dorn has been able to understand the American Indian more deeply perhaps than any recent writer, scholarly or poetic, who is not himself an Indian. In these works, as in the larger body of his writing, Dorn makes marginal figures, as they resist external authority with an indivisible spirit of self, land and history, morally central to the inner life of American Culture.”

                                                                                                         – Paul Dresman

 

I dug Ed Dorn because he wd rather
Make you his enemy
Than lie
           – Amiri Baraka

 

I first encountered Ed Dorn at a reading I did with him and Linda Hogan in Denver in the spring of 1983, at Muddy’s Coffee House in the Slightly Off Center Theatre on 15th street. I was a young, green poet and it was my first major reading with a theatre full of people, most of whom I didn’t know. I remember being anxious, pacing as I read, almost stalking the words as they came from my mouth. In contrast, Dorn was seated for his reading and read from Hello, La Jolla, or, possibly, Yellow Lola, late 1970’s works that, in contrast to the wild-crafted, rhythmic surrealism of his Gunslinger series of books, seemed arrestingly aphoristic. I knew of Ed Dorn — he was teaching at the University of Colorado — but it would be some years before I began reading all of his works and concluding, along with many others, that his was a distinctive, uncompromising and wildly original American voice and, as his friend the late Amiri Baraka described him, “Thin straight blonde Cowboy/movie looking white guy with the mind/of a saw.”

    Fact is, I didn’t appreciate him as much in those days. And that was as much due to my immaturity and insecurity as it was my inability to recognize great writing character when I was in the same room with it. He was particularly generous to my wife and I and after the reading we spent some time together talking about Denver — he was interested in it as a collection of characters in a landscape, its roots as well as its contemporaneous presence as a major metropolis. He was intrigued by its straight, cosmopolitan, newly corporate cow town development vibe verses the academic/counter-culture exoticism of post-hippie mountain town Boulder. At that time, Naropa Institute was sucking much of the literary air out of the room. Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman had conceived the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics there, and Trungpa Rimpoche’s hijinks were becoming legend. (I attended the summer poetics program in 1978, so, guilty.)

    After a brief summer teaching stint there in 1977, Dorn evidently wanted no further part of it. In fact, he eschewed the authoritarian implication of all labels and categories: definitions, belonging to a particular school or group of writers. He disdained being classified as Beat, outlaw, academic or avant-garde or belonging to any particular “movement”; as for his primary poetic education with Charles Olson and Robert Creeley at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, as Lisa Jarnot put it, “the formidable constellation of Black Mountain poetics”, it was a transformative experience that would transcend all manner of category or label. In fact, his appearance in Donald Allen’s seminal 1960 anthology of non-academic, avant-garde writing, The New American Poetry, where his work appeared with the greatest poetic minds of his generation, would be as close as he came to belonging to any group. Continue reading ““Acetylene Sunsets: Edward Dorn’s Recollections of Gran Apacheria” By John Macker”