Sunday, July 07, 2013

Merlin's Return: When Ken Kesey Toured Britain with the Merry Pranksters (Part 2)

"I'm not proselytising for LSD anymore. There's not enough of the good stuff to go around" - Ken Kesey, 1999.

I was working in a care home in Kettering when the Pranksters came. I remember reading about their imminent trip in a newspaper; it must have been The Guardian because I didn’t go near any of the others. I’d read Cuckoo’s Nest years ago and at the time I was in the middle of another one, I think it was The Last Go-Round, the under-rated novel that Kesey wrote with Babbs. Somehow, although I was aware of the continuing existence of most of my heroes—Ginsberg had died two years before, but a great many were still with us—the fact that they were all in America made them as remote as death anyway. But Kesey was coming here, onto my streets, to breathe my air. That was, indeed, like being told Merlin had been seen in a peaked hat and a velvet cape dancing a jig on Montague Street.

I sat in the park in Kettering one day writing or sketching in my journal (it’s always one or the other even now), and I remember looking up thinking how marvellous it would be if I saw the Pranksters’ bus pulling uphill along the road that ran beside the park. Now that would be something, I thought. I might just do what Dylan does in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, take off my apron, hand my clipboard to the nearest boy and go off in search of outlaws. But I didn’t see the bus. I don’t remember what I saw, although I’m certain my eyes would have passed quickly over the gloomy gothic horror of the corner building down the hill, where the evil dentist Mr. Hargreaves used to ply his wicked trade in the 1970s. I’d been there as a boy and experienced such pain and fear I still thought of Hargreaves as a cross between Ian Brady and Vincent Price.

If I’d had the internet then I might have been able to work out the Pranksters’ schedule. But the internet was barely on my radar in those days. So I just kept watching the roads, watching and hoping, for at least the first two weeks of the month they were supposed to be here. Then some other fancy took my thwarted attention away--probably just the horrendous schedule of night shifts I’d put myself on to stay away from an unhappy home situation--and I forgot about it.

The Pranksters, meanwhile, had arrived in the country and were heading south. That’s what the websites I’ve found tell me anyway. The information on them is conflicting, but that’s the way it should be. Talk and cross-talk, stories over a campfire. Poems being written. Each giving its own version of what happened and when. If this account is wrong in some details so much the better. We are speaking of Merlin, after all.

The idea was to travel through the high roads and low roads of the country stopping in different towns to do shows and meet the people. Then, on August 11th at 11.11am, the precise time of the last solar eclipse before the millennium, the Pranksters would perform their pageant “The Knights of the Not So Round Table” at the Minack Theatre in Cornwall.

A day or two days before they reached the Minack site, the Pranksters visited Stonehenge. Merlin would, wouldn’t he? Kesey, according to some stories, was disappointed by the ancient druid site. Perhaps he could still feel the vibes from the Battle of Beanfield twelve years before when, on Margaret Thatcher’s orders, hundreds of cops had brutally attacked the rainbow travellers assembling there for the summer solstice. Maybe the kingdom had picked up its bags and gone somewhere else after that. Things had changed for Kesey too. The last time he was here, his companions included Jerry Garcia and the Hell’s Angels. Things happened after dark, he intimated, that wouldn’t be going on in broad daylight with cameras and spectators surrounding them.

“Merlin isn’t here,” said Prankster John Swan (not buying into my thesis), “but I know we’ll see him before the eclipse.”

After Stonehenge it was on to the Minack Theatre. I’ve been to the Minack. It’s an incredible open air playhouse built out of the rocks overlooking the sea. When I was there it was mid-September and the wind and lashing rain blowing across the cliffs was so intense and cold my enjoyment of the amateur production of “Fiddler on the Roof” I’d gone to see was ruined utterly. Accounts of the Pranksters’ performance are sketchy--all I can find is a comment about the play being panned in the local paper--but the weather looks fabulous in the pictures Kesey’s son Zane sent to me recently. I wouldn’t want anybody to go through the suffering I did perched high on the cliffside with the elements doing their best to destroy me. (The local press, by the way, were never going to get what the Pranksters were about. Half of the smart, cynical mainstream press wasn’t either. Kesey and his friends didn’t give a shit about them, though. They knew they had a smarter constituency.)

One of that smart constituency was/is my friend Graham Scott. Being less of a dope than me, Graham found out where the Pranksters were going to be on their tour and went to see them with his “fellow traveller” Helen. Their rendezvous with history happened in Liverpool ten days after the eclipse. Graham’s vivid memories of that day take us inside the tour in a way that other accounts I’ve found don’t quite manage to do:

The top of the show saw Kesey read his account of coming to London and hanging out at the Apple Building with the Beatles. He was wearing a fisherman's smock and held the stage in his hand. A deliberate reader with perfect cadence; an ancient American bard. Then there was their play: Where's Merlin - a great ramshackling Arthurian affair with Pranksters n japes n mistakes n fun and which culminated in a jalopy jam of Dead tunes.

We hung out outside after the show. Kesey and Babbs came and sat on the back of the bus and shook everyone's hands and exchanged smiles. No doubt I had my legend filters in but Kesey had a golden hue, something other, and serene, about him. At one point a girl, maybe sixteen and beautiful, made her way through the crowd and beheld Ken, and Ken beheld the girl and they hugged like you've never seen. Everyone watched, quiet. Bong!

We got talking to Carolyn Adams-Garcia who i'd been in love with ever since reading Tom Wolfe when I was a teenager. Mountain Girl asked us what we thought of the show, and "Didn't you think it was kinda chaotic?" "We love chaos," we laughed. She pulled us in to her chest, a breast each, and held us there exclaiming "My children!" I'm still reeling.

During the Dead jam Kesey had mentioned "John Cassady" on guitar. I made a point of waiting for Mr John Cassady to exit the stage door and had a great chat with him. How mad this evening was. He told me about his dad bringing home Jerry Garcia to teach him guitar... A lovely bloke, worked in a tyre shop somewhere in the States...

Maybe I’m still the starstruck kid who picked up a copy of On The Road and fell madly in love with the whole mythology of the American counter-culture, but I can’t even begin to tell you how much I envy Graham that experience.

As for the Search for Merlin . . . well, as I’ve indicated, Merlin was there all the time, like happiness is always (or usually) at home. If Kesey wasn’t a charismatic shapeshifting wizard giving counsel (however unheeded, by kings at least) about the fate of nations, who was? And if, soon, he was to be imprisoned for the ages by death, the legend, like Merlin’s, will continue for as long as there are people intelligent enough to look outside their door at what’s going on in the streets and know something isn’t right. Kesey offers an answer. But it’s not in drugs, although that might be one way, for some. It’s in freedom. Like Ken once said to a reporter (I paraphrase), “Everyone should be free to be as large as he feels he has it in him to be.” As large, or as small. Because that’s large too when it’s rooted in happiness and arrival and a refusal to hurt anyone. Whatever your trip might be, take it, in other words; and if it’s not fun try something else. Life, as that other great philosopher my mum would say, is too bloody short.

When Kesey died a couple of years later, I remembered the opportunity I’d had to say hello to him or catch one of the shows in ’99 and wished I’d tried a little harder. I can be a real idiot. In 2005, though, I started a poetry magazine called Blue Fred's Kitchen; and having discovered a complete fearlessness about knocking on the doors of the famous or the mythical, I sent an email to Ken Babbs asking if he’d like to contribute a poem to it. He did, and for some reason--maybe because of everything I’d read about him and the times he lived in--I wasn’t too surprised. Others were. “How’d you get Babbs?” another editor, Joe Speer, wrote. “Asked him,” I replied. That’s the way it always was with the Pranksters.

In writing this piece I am incredibly grateful for the support of Zane Kesey at, Ken Babbs, and Graham Scott for his brilliant first-hand account of a meeting with the Pranksters. All pictures here are copyright of Zane Kesey. Please approach him for permission before you use them.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Merlin’s Return: When Ken Kesey Toured Britain with the Merry Pranksters (Part 1)

Merlin wore many hats: he was a wizard or sorcerer, a prophet, a bard, an adviser and a tutor. He appeared as a young boy with no father. He appeared as an old, wise man, freely giving his wisdom to four successive British kings. He was dotting old fool [sic], who couldn't control his lust over beautiful women, who hold him [sic] in fear and contempt. He had even appeared as a madman after bloody battle, and had fled into the forest and learned how to talk to the animals, where he became known as the Wild Man of the Woods. Merlin was the last of the druid, the Celtic shaman, priest of nature, and keeper of knowledge, particularly of the arcane secrets.

In August 1999, legendary author and counter-culture icon Ken Kesey came to Britain with Ken Babbs and the Merry Pranksters in search of Merlin. That was the ostensible purpose of their month-long tour of British towns and cities, which was being sponsored by Channel Four as part of its Summer of Love season. Kesey, Babbs, Mountain Girl and a large entourage of family and friends were here in Albion to find its ancient wizard, who according to the legend was scheduled to make an appearance of his own before the millennium.

Of course, that was only the cover story. Kind of. Kesey probably didn’t believe he could find the mythical Merlin any more than those other folks believed they could levitate the Pentagon at the height of the Vietnam War. That was symbolic protest, psychic intimidation; and the Pranksters had never even gone that far in dealing with the iron in the soul that makes nations weep and kill. They had left town in the other direction before most serious political protest even started in the Sixties. Their thing was different. It’s hard even to explain what their thing was. A refusal to engage in the ideology of protest as well as the ruling ideology, perhaps . . . what academics might call a rejection of binary oppositions, which in some ways are mutually reinforcing.

The Pranksters just did what they did. They had fun, unco-opted by anyone on the left or the right; and if you understood what they were into, the spectacle of it must have been tremendously liberating. You could argue that their influence ended up liberating a whole generation of young people. After all, what was Woodstock if not a giant extension of the community of colourful, zany, mutually-supporting friends who rode Kesey’s bus Furthur around America in 1964 (the year I was born)?

photo copyright Zane Kesey

That sense of fun and liberation is what the Pranksters were being paid to bring to Britain in ’99. Blair’s Britain. It’s hard to remember now, but before those planes hit the World Trade Centre towers in 2001, this country was in the middle of a long (and ultimately economically destructive) party, with a popular—yes, I know, I scratch my head too—Prime Minister and a culture bouncing with youth and optimism. And after the conservative strictures of punk rock and Thatcher, the 1960s had somehow been transmogrified by distance into the emblem of a time that shared little with it except, on a purely sentimental level, a yearning for something more spiritually elevated than shopping as the national pastime.

The most popular band of the era, Oasis, said The Beatles were their heroes. Blair himself had been in a fledgling group at university and claimed he like The Stones. It was inevitable in that sort of cultural climate that Kesey’s brand of coyote-ish lunacy was going to be in demand, even if half the country was on drugs now and it didn’t seem to have helped anyone very much (except drug dealers). But that wasn’t Kesey’s fault or his problem. He wouldn’t have claimed that he was here to do anything more than relive old kicks and make a few people happy along the way; and you can’t really argue with that as the rationale for anything. After illness and the quiet years spent in Oregon when all the madness was over, the Merlin Ken hoped to meet on the trip was probably the man in the shaving mirror.

Monday, July 01, 2013

My Mother, Books And Me

Seventeen years ago in the early hours of July 1st, my mother Sylvia died. The details of her death and her life are for another time and place, but I’ve been thinking today about the influence she had on me as a reader of books.

If you’d looked at her bookshelves you might have thought her influence was a little tenuous. Musically we were cut from a very similar cloth (if that isn’t a mixed metaphor). But I don’t think I ever read one of her novels while she was alive.

Mum liked Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters; and she could devour a Dick Francis book in a day. I tried to read one of his on a train journey to Glasgow with my then-girlfriend once but I was bored to death before we reached the next stop. Perhaps the fact that we were going to watch the Rolling Stones had put me in too much of a rock and roll mood for a story about jockeys.

Long before I developed my own literary tastes, however, Mum had instilled in me a reverence for books as objects that I’ve never lost. Sometimes she would put her more expensive ones inside protective covers. When she was young, she explained, they couldn’t afford many books; so they learned to think of them as precious.

As a kid I had read a lot of pulp Westerns: the Edge series by George G. Gilman, and the Herne the Hunter books. In my late teens, though, I met Bob Dylan on the Road to Damascus and decided to become a poet. Researching him drove me to the Beat Generation.

I didn’t have a lot of money at the time, having dropped out of college. So the books of my new heroes were well beyond my reach unless located on market stalls and in charity shops. But Mum, wanting to nurture my interest, bought a beautiful hardback edition of On The Road for me; and inside—on a piece of paper, so as not to deface the book—wrote a little poem she said she’d heard on the radio. It has served me ever since as a kind of Guide to Life:

When I die
I hope it’s said
His sins were scarlet
But his books were read.

How many mothers would be fantastic enough to offer their son that sort of advice?

She bought me several books that year, as I forged a new understanding of myself as a writer. Usually they were things I’d expressed an interest in but couldn’t afford, like Joe Orton’s The Orton Diaries. There was only one occasion when she came home with something by an author I’d never heard of. She said her father-in-law had been an admirer and she thought I would like him too.

The author was Christopher Isherwood and the book was a quietly staggering novel called Goodbye to Berlin. It’s about the Nazi takeover of Germany just before World War II, the horror of which is summed up in what I consider the best last line in English literature:

“Even now I can’t altogether believe that any of this has really happened . . .”

I hope nobody will think I’m being tasteless or self-indulgent when I say that seventeen years on, I still feel that way about my mother’s death.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

BOOK OF THE WEEK: "Exit Nothing" by Pat King

Exit Nothing by Pat King. Kuboa, 2012. (

Pat King’s Exit Nothing has been around for a year or two now, but I suspect it will be around for a lot longer than that. It’s fabulous, a little classic novel of the counter-culture following its underground writer protagonist through cities, relationships, depressing jobs and the alternative arts scene. There we find a world of crazy poets, performance artists and new young writers determined to turn over the big table that the academics and the guys with the fat publishing contracts dine at. Even in the novel the success of their mission seems doomed, but it’s the doing of it that matters; having the passion, being alive enough to care. The narrator is alienated from his first wife, in fact, because she doesn’t have the courage to go all the way with her art. That’s part of it anyway. She’s good, but she won’t surrender herself to the life. And as Miles Davis said (or was it Charlie Parker?), “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”

I first became aware of Pat a long time ago when he was part of the Underground Literary Alliance, and those guys provide the model for the fiery young radical group the RWA in the novel. I recognise one or two of the other characters as well, which is weird, but it’s not some kind of roman-a-clef for the first great internet generation of zinesters and scenesters (although it is a celebration of them). It’s a novel about a guy’s search for something that changes every time he thinks he’s identified what it is. He wants wild-ass adventure; he’s wanted that all his life, and he’s suited to it in a way that most people whose great liberation happened while they were reading a book could never be. He wants to write and be at the centre of the thrilling creative world he finds in Philadelphia. He needs love and peace too; and yet every time the dust of his bohemian life starts settling around him he says or does something that stirs it up again. “I was a fool. Kind of a dick, actually,” he says.

That’s the language that it’s written in. When the narrator is in deep reflection it flashes surreally, like a poem. But there’s no affectation; Pat's words are those of an intelligent American who hasn’t been poured through the academic mould and set hard; he writes as someone who has lived on the other side of town among the bums and the crazies and like Kerouac, actually prefers them. Not that he worships at the feet of the Beat writers either. They may have started things in America, democratising poetry and prose and setting off wave after wave of independent creative activity, but Beat worship has become as stultifying as everything else. When Pat’s narrator goes to see the Kerouac manuscript in Lowell he feels—as I’ve said on this blog—that seeing it in its unfinished form is an intrusion. The place in which it’s housed “smells of death.” Yes, indeed.

Structurally Pat mixes up the chronology of the story so that the past informs the present and the present explains the past. You see different moments in the two principle relationships he has—beginnings and endings jumble—and somehow that makes the emotional curve of all three characters more sympathetic, even when they’re doing nasty things to one another. It’s not common to read a book in which you feel a degree of empathy even for characters you know you wouldn’t like. And even less common—the criticism has substance—that a male author of the Underground/ alternative literary scene should write women well. Pat does. I’m not a woman so I can’t be the final judge; but to me Pat’s women are as sensitive and human as his men.

You can find Exit Nothing now on Amazon and you’d be well rewarded for your purchase. If you do read it—or you’ve read it already—why don’t you leave a message here and tell us what you think? I am linking to the novel at the side of this page as Suffolk Punch’s first Book of the Week

Friday, June 28, 2013

REVIEW: "Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive" by Bryn Fortey

NEVER GET OUT OF THESE BLUES ALIVE by Bryn Fortey, Sad Face Press, 212 Caerleon Road, Newport, South Wales, NP19 7GQ. Price £1.50, cheques payable to B. Fortey.

Bryn Fortey’s slim chapbook NEVER GET OUT OF THESE BLUES ALIVE puts two of his great strengths as a poet on show: beautiful evocations of the lives of his favourite blues and jazz artists, and a demonstration of what their music means in our lives. Nobody—or almost nobody—can live without music. Bryn shows you why. How it becomes, to borrow a phrase I’ve used before, the soundtrack of your experiences, and an articulation of what you feel but couldn’t possibly say without shattering into thousands of tiny fragments when life really starts to hurt.

I’m not giving anything away when I say that Bryn’s been through some things in the last few years. It’s there in the dedication page for all to see. He’s not asking for your sympathy, but like the blues singers he namechecks in the poems, he’s telling you about his good and bad times, using the lives and music of Charley Patton, John Lee Hooker, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bessie Smith (I think) and Howlin’ Wolf to provide his depth and shade. Another Welsh poet had a phrase for this sort of thing. He called it “singing in [your] chains like the sea.” Only Bryn, unlike Dylan Thomas, sings in his chains in poems infused with Beat and jazz rhythms. They’d sound wonderful read aloud.

Personal favourites of mine are moments when the poet’s autobiographical data seems to peep most clearly out from behind the romantic masks. “Marching into Glory” and “Mess of Blues”; and “City Blues”, where experience hardens the vision as it breaks the heart (“Expect to be used/ There is no other creed”). In “Night-Time Blues” sleep offers no Shakespearean escape from suffering (“A bed of no rest/ Is where I lie”) and “Dance” creates the chapbook’s best image, the people we’ve lost dancing alone in death to “a slow jazz/ Beyond blues.”

Other personal stories too painful to tell, too private to share, are hidden in different poems (I suspect): “Blues for Bessie” and “The Death of Blind Lemon Jefferson”. But there is also celebration here; music marks the highest moments of our lives as much as it consoles us in the lowest and Bryn doesn’t forget that. “Pianoman Blues”, “Hey There Blues”, “Mama Guitar” and “Mighty Wolf” are all about the music and the men and women who play it . . . and they’re informed by the poet’s tremendous knowledge of his subject. Who knew that Howlin’s Wolf was considered “Bone stupid/[…]/With an ingrained suspicion/A man who knew how to bear a grudge” (“Mighty Wolf”)?

In the 90s Bryn Fortey edited “Target”, and then he moved on to “Outlaw”, the finest small press magazine I’ve ever seen; in both he proved again and again that he’s a man who knows a good poet as well as a great Delta blues guitar player or New Orleans trumpeter. But he has always been too modest to rate himself above average as a writer. I admire his refusal to wrap himself in myth and glory—we British are suspicious of self-praise—but there are passages in this moving little book when you wonder if he hasn’t been underestimating himself all these years.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Word From Headquarters: Suffolk Punch Is Moving House

The Bard Gaff, aka Suffolk Punch headquarters, is relocating to points presently unknown in the next two months. My landlord is selling, quite reasonably given that he can't buy a house down south where he now lives while he still owns this one. He’s a good guy, the first landlord I’ve been able to say that about without crossing my fingers behind my back. But life changes, people's needs change, and his need is to be in another part of the country with the person he loves. Good for him.

Of course, having to move means your nomad editor and his spiritual wife are now faced with a great deal of work on top of all our usual labours. I also have to suppress my natural preference for being left the fuck alone.Tomorrow someone is coming to paint the lounge and in readiness for that I’ve had to pile all my books up on my writing table. (Well, those I haven’t given to charity.) I sit here now at the laptop looking like a paranoid hippie inside a bunker made of the great works of the ages. Which is exactly what I am. I’ve just been sorting through and properly archiving (at last) all my literary papers and correspondence. Letters from Joe Speer, Dave Church, t.k.splake, Norb Blei, Chris Torrance, John Tungay, Barry Tebb, Bryn Fortey, Jeanne Conn, Bill Wyatt . . . these things have been lying around, stuffed in drawers and boxes, for years. Such disrespect! When the time comes I could write a history of the small press from all these documents.

Maybe I will. But I have more pressing matters on my agenda at the moment. Like printing off a cv in the Greek café on Abington Street this morning. I’ve registered with a private tutoring agency but I’m getting no work; so, much as I don’t want to, I’ll have to sign on at the Job Centre for a while. Convincing a new landlord to take us on won’t be easy with my partner on minimum wage (though what they pay care workers in this country is a scandal) and me being an overweight, half-blind epileptic living in the radiant, pure light of literature, wholly uncorrupted by anything so vulgar as money.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Elvis Presley: Bootleg Insights Into The Mind And Decline Of The King Of Rock And Roll

Whether you rate him as an artist or not, and many don’t these days, the one thing you can’t deny about Elvis Presley is that he was enormously influential. By using white musicians with a country sensibility to sing and play songs from the other side of town, he helped wake up a whole generation to the existence of some of the greatest artists and most vibrant, sexy, challenging music of the last century.

Some say he stole their work. I don’t know about the deals his manager Colonel Parker did—maybe there were rip-off contracts—but I’m fairly sure Elvis would have had no part in that. He was too lazy, too passive about the organisation of details. That was why he had a manager. When Elvis wasn’t working—i.e. making records/ films or touring—he wanted to play. And he played like somebody who had never left his late adolescence behind—if, that is (according to some of the books at least), he wasn’t hiding from his fear of failure and his self-lacerating depression by taking every prescription drug he could lay his hands on.

He talks about the drugs in a spectacular onstage rant in this unlabelled bootleg cd I have (no doubt widely available in other forms on the internet); a bootleg which contains keys to many things that ruined the so-called (but not by him) King of Rock and Roll. Sounding exactly like somebody in a drug-induced rage he talks to a crowd of Las Vegas concert goers (I presume it’s Vegas) about rumours that he couldn’t perform recently because he was “STRUNG OUT on heroin.” No,no, he says; it wasn’t heroin, it was the flu, and he got over it in a day. But, he warns, “If I find or hear the individual that has said that about me I’m gonna break your goddamn neck, you sonofabitch…I will pull your tongue out by the ROOTS.”

Which is extraordinary, because Elvis just didn’t do things like that. In the age of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppellin, his public image had him as the darling of Nixon’s Silent Majority. He was allowed to hint at a touch of devilishness, but it was always playful devilry; something to make his fans feel naughty, but not guilty.

The bootleg shows it was a con. I don’t know how intentional a con—perhaps he was just old-fashioned enough to think that some things were not for public consumption, even when you were an artist—but he was not the “yes sir, no sir” clean-living church-going apogee of Southern respectability Colonel Parker and every thirtysomething fan at the time wanted him to be. And maybe the fundamental dishonesty of his image is part of what crucified him, along with the relentless, grinding tour schedule he agreed to in the pursuit of more and more money and as a salve to his chronic insecurity about not being loved anymore. No human being can live a lie for very long without sustaining damage, unless he or she is a psychopath.

Throughout the recordings on the cd—which span, as far as I can tell, a 14 year period—Elvis uses every colourful cuss-word in the book, creating interesting lyrical variations on well-known songs: “I’ll make a wish in every fountain,” from Heart of Rome becomes “I’ll take a piss in every fountain,” and “May the fire of love still burn,” is transformed into “May the fire of shit still burn”; Love Me’s “If you ever go, darling I’ll be oh so lonely,” becomes “…darling I’ll be oh so horny”; and Hurt’s “I still love you so,” is suddenly rendered “…you cocksucker, I’ll still love you so.”

It’s quite funny, or at least, I think it is, but it’s not sophisticated humour. In fact, it’s pretty immature at times. That’s the late adolescence thing I referred to earlier. Elvis needs the security of his fame, but when he’s surrounded by musicians and hangers-on he needs the security of their laughter too; so he constantly tries to provoke it. And frequently other people on the cd can be heard laughing twice at a joke Elvis makes that wasn’t very funny the first time. It’s creepily reminiscent of the crowd around Andy Warhol, who treated his shallow observations and silly non-sequiturs as messages from some divine authority.

Somebody should have told Elvis to shut up and get to work. Of course, he was so accustomed to the praise of an uncritical entourage by then, he probably would have fired anybody on the spot who’d tried to direct his talent properly. Because deep down he would have known that they were telling the truth, and the truth is usually the most offensive, scary thing of all. But imagine if someone had stopped Elvis sabotaging song takes by barking and quacking and told him that he could do better. Much better. Sam Phillips did it before fame went to Elvis’ head, and those early Sun recordings are incredible.

A little bit of honesty from the people around Elvis might have saved his life as well as his career, come to think of it. He was a monstrous, bloated (and yet heartbreakingly fragile) wreck of his former beautiful self in the last televised show from 1977. Before he went onstage for that, he supposedly quipped to a helper, “I may not look good for the cameras tonight, but I’ll look good in my coffin.” Something like that anyway. What a tragic statement for a man of 42 to make. We are all masters of our own fate, to a large extent; but I do hope that those who helped Elvis on his rush to the grave wake up in the night sometimes remembering those words and wondering if things might have been different.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Subversion In The Dream Factory

Strong Women And Other Crazy Ideas in Katherine Hepburn's "Sylvia Scarlett"


Hollywood is too money-driven an industry to be radical. Large investment means there’s an expectation of larger financial returns; and those are guaranteed, so the wisdom goes, by giving the audience “what they want.” Or what they are presumed to want, since a business with enough cash to bankroll a film has no more insight into the minds, the real minds, of the cinema-going, dvd-watching public than a booster for political change. That’s why we get “surprise hits.” A producer takes a chance on something slightly different, or a low budget movie gets good distribution, and the public everybody has been talking on behalf of picks the movie up and runs with it.

Representations of gender and sexuality have always been a problem in the mainstream, give-me-your-money cinema. Hollywood in its pursuit of the buck and its fear of causing offence to the “ordinary movie goer” tends to reflect the cultural consensus of the times; and at no time, really, have strong women or homosexuality been socially acceptable, much less a subject to bring to the dinner table. Some argue that this is beginning to change. My view is that the representations of homosexuality, which began to have occasional screen currency in metropolitan movies in the 80s, are still as clichéd as they are well-intentioned. Strong women in mainstream cinema continue to be so rare we tell all our friends when we’ve seen one. They’re like the first cuckoo of Spring, and I use the cuckoo advisedly, since it isn’t their own nest these strong women are sitting in.

Given the rarity of these positive images of women and homosexuality in 2013, then, I was quite staggered last night to watch a movie made 77 years ago which features heavy doses of one and daring, almost Shakespearean investigations of the other. The movie Sylvia Scarlett was no underground curiosity or foreign import either; it was a star vehicle for two of Hollywood’s hottest actors, Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, and director George Cukor was a stalwart of the studio system, already known by that time for film adaptations of David Copperfield and Romeo and Juliet. He was hardly a radical tubthumper.

Based on a novel by Compton Mackenzie, Sylvia Scarlett was a fantastic flop in its time, grossing nearly $250,000 less than it cost to make. And it’s not hard to see why. When audiences were used to Fred and Ginger, or Gable and Lombard, in tales where good and bad were usually well defined if the polarities were evident at all (not much wickedness in You Were Never Lovelier), a movie in which all three heroes are con artists would have been puzzling enough; watching the central female dress up as a boy for most of the film must have made the miniscule number of people who saw it feel they had been the victim of some sort of elaborate, distasteful trick.

The subversions of the film don’t stop there either. After Hepburn, her father and Cary Grant (letting down the whole project with the worst lor’-luv-a-duck London accent in cinema history), decide to give up their life of petty crime and go on the road in a travelling show, their new partner Maudie (Dennie Moore), in a distinctly homoerotic scene, draws a Ronald Coleman moustache on the disguised Hepburn and then kisses her. And later artist Michael Fane (Brian Aherne), before he learns that Hepburn is a woman, tells her that she provokes a mysterious interest in him. It’s Twelfth Night replayed for Hollywood in an era that Shakespeare would have found morally suffocating. Unwitting and unacknowledged homosexuality as heavy in the air as impending rain.

Oh, and then, then, the coup-de-grace. Aherne fails to return the love of his Russian suitor and she tries to drown herself. Who dives into the storm-racked sea to rescue her? Hepburn, before Cary Grant has even got his boots on. And although she has fallen for Aherne herself, she realises the suitor’s love is greater; so she appeals to Aherne to come to the Russian’s bedside and show her compassion. Sacrifice or sisterhood? or both? I confess I don’t know; but her refusal to make an enemy of the competition seemed an enlightened act to me – she looked into the other woman’s heart and saw something there that she recognised.

And so they rush to the camp where the travelling show has parked its caravans; but Cary Grant, still the grifter, has taken the woman away to exploit her devastation at the loss of Aherne and make her his own. She is wealthy. In his unreformed, unsentimental mind there is nothing else to do. There follows a chase, a high speed chase (or as high a speed as a 1936 jalopy could muster), and when Aherne gets his hand caught in the car door Hepburn takes the wheel; once again woman becomes rescuer, careening down country roads – alas, she’s not a terrifically good driver, but she drives. And then, in a twist of the plot which reinforces all of the complex ideas about gender and sexuality that the film explores, Hepburn is forced to remove the dress she has stolen to reveal herself to Aherne as a woman and return to the rough suit and flat cap she has worn as her disguise. As two men, they get into a fight with a policeman. As two men, they share a cell for the night, never letting on to those who’ve locked them up because Aherne doesn’t want them to be separated.

Propriety is restored for the final, inevitable romantic clinch. For that Hepburn is in an elegant long black coat, although obviously her close-cropped hair remains. They have had an inordinate amount of time to buy the coat given that when the chase resumes, they find themselves on the same train as Cary Grant; apparenty a lead of at least 12 hours on his pursuers wasn’t enough of an advantage for Grant. But that’s fine; Shakespeare usually restored propriety too – it’s the messing with it in the first place that’s interesting. Morality, however, is left decidedly skewed here. The wealthy Russian isn’t warned of Grant’s ill intentions by Aherne and Hepburn; that was their intention, but once Kate has Aherne’s confession of love she drops any feelings of sisterhood she has . . . the new couple just pull the train’s emergency chord and run off into the night, while Grant in his compartment watches them from the window and laughs boyishly. It’s a weird, weird ending, but it’s great. Neat moral resolutions may make us feel good in movies, but they bear little resemblance to the world we find when we come out of the darkness of the cinema and walk like blind hamsters into the light.

Katherine Hepburn was never an archetypal Hollywood star. She didn’t look like one, and she definitely didn’t think like one. Others may have been intelligent, but Hepburn didn’t care who knew it; and the simple irrefutability of her assertion that she could, indeed, match any of your asses in anything caused even stupid reactionary men (John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn) to stand back and let her do her thing. Sylvia Scarlett is one of many examples. Films where she carries you along with her like a wave and as Holden Caulfield says about good writers in The Catcher in the Rye, you wish you’d been able to call her up and invite her round for dinner after you watch it. But it’s more than just a tour-de-force performance by one of Hollywood’s great actors, in her physical prime. It’s a movie of ideas and investigations, a movie about women and men, hetero- and homosexuality, even servant and server (which ties in with the gender theme) – all three con artists are poor, and when Maudie comes into their circle she is, literally, in service, to a rich family we never see.

In the sense that it’s a movie of ideas, I could be glib and say, not surprising it tanked so spectacularly then. But that would be arrogant, and probably bullshit too. I know how things work. A movie’s success depends on reviews, distribution and advertising even before footfall becomes a consideration;  all of those are part of the large patriarchal machine of the entertainment industry. To what extent did the men who ran the system support a movie so filled with ideas that challenged the world as they constructed it, the world they profited from so nicely? Not a hell of a lot, I would imagine (with informed confidence).

Still, quality, common sense and Katherine Hepburn have had their final revenge, as anyone who can find the movie now will tell you.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Lucia Joyce: I Know Why The Caged Bird Rages

William Butler Yeats, when he was riding the bus, would occasionally go into a compositional trance. He would stare straight ahead and utter a low hum and beat time with his hands. People would come up to him and ask him if he was all right. Once, his young daughter, Anne, boarded a bus and found him in that condition among the passengers. She knew better than to disturb him. But when the bus stopped at their gate, she got off with him. He turned to her vaguely and said, “Oh, who is it you wish to see?” When I think of what it means to be an artist’s child, I remember that story.
JOAN ACOCELLA , “A Fire in the Brain”, The New Yorker, 2003.

Carol Shloss believes that Lucia’s case was cruelly mishandled. When Lucia fell ill, she at last captured her father’s sustained attention. He grieved over her incessantly. At the same time, he was in the middle of writing “Finnegans Wake,” and there were people around him—friends, patrons, assistants, on whom, since he was going blind, he was very dependent—who believed that the future of Western literature depended on his ability to finish this book. But he was not finishing it, because he was too busy worrying about Lucia. He was desperate to keep her at home. His friends—and also Nora, who bore the burden of caring for Lucia when she was at home, and who was the primary target of her fury—insisted that she be institutionalized. The entourage finally prevailed, and Joyce completed “Finnegans Wake.” In Shloss’s view, Lucia was the price paid for a book. 

JOAN ACOCELLA , “A Fire in the Brain”, The New Yorker, 2003.

On Bloomsday I didn’t mention James Joyce, either here or on any of my other pages. I rate him highly, although I have read only the first four books; Finnegan’s Wake seemed unreadable to me. But everybody talks about Joyce these days, even people who didn’t get past A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He has become as much of a totem of something – something I don’t quite understand – as an author. Which is fine but if that totemic quality serves no purpose other than to reinforce values that ought to be torn down, it doesn’t have a place at Suffolk Punch.

As a writer Joyce was extraordinary. I’ve read Dubliners, Portrait and Ulysses twice each (although in the case of Ulysses I confess it was because I didn’t understand it the first time). But as a human being I find I’m more interested in Joyce’s daughter Lucia than the man himself. She’s buried here in Northampton, in Kingsthorpe Cemetery. I’ve been there twice trying to locate her grave because I wanted to sit with her shade for a while and leave a symbolic key for Lucia to use; with it maybe she could free herself from the asylum in which history has left her.

Alan Moore called Lucia Joyce “the dancing heart of Northampton.” She lived here from 1951 to 1982, but unlike Moore she was not a resident by choice. Lucia was incarcerated in St. Andrew’s Hospital, still dogged by the diagnosis of mental illness that had been imposed on her in the 1930s; a number of experts had seen her, including Carl Jung, whose fascinating, but it seems to me poetic as much as scientific, expertise was rejected by Lucia. On those grounds alone she should be lauded as a feminist refuser like Ida Bauer.

I don’t mention the woman who famously sacked Freud for frivolous reasons. I’m not an expert on Lucia’s case, but I have worked in mental health as a carer; and as far as I can tell, Lucia was more of a victim of patriarchal authority than schizophrenia, hebephrenia, cyclothymia or “hormone imbalance”. (At one time or another she was diagnosed with all four, hormone imbalance being Dr. James Joyce’s suggestion. Another clinician said she was “markedly neurotic” - the old stand-by.) Most accounts suggest, as Carol Loeb Scloss does, that Lucia’s four-decade journey through a patriarchal health care system was engineered by Nora, but even that has a touch of unintentional sexism about it. Everywhere I go I see men being excused from responsibility for their actions by women who detect the presence of a manipulating evil matriarch in the shadows behind them.

Imagine what “experts” then and now would have made of Lucia had she been a man. Let’s look at some evidence: she often seemed distracted; she was shy as a child; she lacked confidence in her abilities; she had several crushes on different men (including Samuel Beckett – famous for writing plays in which people waited for nothing and lived in dustbins); she announced she was a lesbian; she threw a chair at her mother; and it was that last act which led to her being taken for the first time to a clinic – by her own brother Georgio. If Lucia had been a man she would have been taken to a bar, encouraged to join the army or given a good arse-whipping by her father. Then all would have been forgotten.

Of course her behaviour changed when she was in institutions. After brief periods of incarceration she set fire to her living room, became more frankly sexual, went to Dublin and lived homeless for six days. (I bet they don’t show you her doorways on the Bloomsday Walk.) But what would you do if you’d had your control taken away from you? If those you loved, who should have understood, betrayed you? If in trying to express something profound and painful you’d been rewarded with medical treatment you didn’t need and diagnoses you didn’t deserve?

After permanent institutionalisation she became violent occasionally, to the extent that she “had” to be put in straitjackets. More frustration; more anger. I saw it in the homes where I worked. The natural instinct of all human beings is to live freely, to make their own decisions, to come and go as they please. Some of the people I worked with could have done that if profit hadn’t been the prime motive of the companies who ran the homes, or the home managers had been more innovative in their thinking about care. Caught in rigid systems where they didn’t belong, tranked to the gills on medication that muddled their thinking, and forced to submit to the ministrations of people who, frequently, were twenty years younger and sixty IQ points lower than them, residents sometimes had no option other than to beat on the nearest person they could find or turn over a dining table. I used to be in the middle of those situations - sometimes getting my head pummelled – and I’d think, in their situation I’d do exactly the same.

But it’s over now, at least for Lucia Joyce. What worries me is that the lurch back towards conservative values seen in almost all areas of society these days will help to resurrect the abhorrent old ideas of “normal” behaviour that helped get Lucia jailed in the first place. Then other people might have to suffer all the deprivations, humiliations and indignities that Lucia suffered just because she had a bit of an attitude problem. I know it goes on still in some parts of the world, but we don’t want it here, where we’re just beginning to get rid of it.

The next time I go to Kingsthorpe I will find her plot first. Get a plan of the cemetery, whatever you do. Then I will be able to give her the key, if she hasn't found her own way out. I understand she’s buried near a woman who shot Mussolini – another one whose madness is highly questionable, also locked up by the (Male) Powers That Be. Apparently in the last century using mental health legislation to remove the cream of the female competition was quite the thing to do. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Sell-Outs & Hold-Outs: The Birthday Honours

                            Vanessa Redgrave, who declined a Damehood from Tony Blair.

I don’t like the honours system. If I were ever offered an honour, which isn’t going to happen, I would tell them to shove it up their arse. Politely. So it always depresses (and bemuses) me to hear that people who I think ought to know better have accepted one.

Today’s transgressor of my idiosyncratic moral code is PJ Harvey, famed indie (I suppose) singer, who emerged in the Nineties (I think) with some of the most raw and exciting music being made back then. The most recent prior offender (whose acceptance of the honour almost killed me, it’s fair to say) was Kate Bush.

The honours system is one of the more conspicuous symbols of the stratified British society we should have buried in 1945. I’m calling no one “Sir” in the country where I was born, thanks all the same. England was built on the labours of men like my grandfather and great-grandfather, who sweated their best years away in factories and on farms.

Give Fred Garnham a posthumous knighthood Mr. Cameron, for all the years he worked at Ransom & Rapier's in Ipswich. For being a good dad and a Portman Road stalwart. Then we’ll talk.

Governments of whichever shade of blue give honours for political reasons. To spin their own image by associating themselves with personalities who meet that end. David Cameron probably does listen to Adele, also honoured today, but if he could name more than one PJ Harvey song without a script I’d be astonished.

She’s on the list for the same reason The Smiths received his weird verbal endorsement a year or two ago – i.e., to pick up extra votes by hoodwinking thirty- and fortysomethings into believing he might still be a Newer Sort of Tory, despite his frequent lurches to the Right in recent times.

But let’s not forget. As welcome as the same sex marriage bill was, Cameron is still responsible, as the leader of the government, for the Bedroom Tax, the dismantling of the NHS, merciless assaults on the welfare system, and countless other iniquities aside.

Thankfully Johnny Marr castigated the Tory premier for trying to co-opt his band so transparently. And that would have been him off the first draft of the next honours list straight away (with an honour from a future Labour PM in the pipeline). Morrissey will never be on any party's list, wonderful old anti-establishment curmudgeon that he is.

Why do other people who once seemed to stand for an intelligent critique of politics and culture in this country become so grateful for the patronage of the robber barons of Power as soon as they reach middle age? I don’t know. I’m fast approaching fifty now and I’m less inclined to be a part of the System than I ever was.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Gimme Jack, With All The Trimmings: How Money Made A Turkey Of Kerouac.

According to the Allen Ginsberg blog, a collection of 59 letters and postcards sent by Jack Kerouac to his friend Ed White are going on sale in New York for an asking price of $1.25 million. The seller is book dealer Glenn Horovitz which handles literary artefacts by Ezra Pound and Sylvia Plath too, among others.

Maybe somebody with more knowledge about these things than Suffolk Punch can tell us where Glenn Horovitz got hold of the letters in the first place. From the White family? From the Kerouac estate? Surely the latter must have had some involvement in the sale, since the copyright on the writing is theirs. Right?

And if it was the Kerouac estate, have any preconditions been set on the sale? Will the letters, in their original form, simply disappear from view once whoever is rich enough to afford them gets his/her mitts on them? I believe the writing of any great author (or even any minor author) must be preserved for history, and in some kind of controlled way it should be accessible to scholars and admirers of the work. Archiving, in other words; not flogging off to some rich person to be used as an indicator of his social standing.

And although I’m not particularly elitist – I don’t think I am anyway – I don’t believe in using great writing as a business acquisition either. I hate what they’ve done to the On the Road manuscript. It’s treated like a prize turkey instead of a precious literary artefact. It's a three-legged boy in a Victorian sideshow, hauled out so people can stare at it for an entrance fee. And half of them probably haven't read it. You may laugh, but to my mind that’s an insult to Jack and the spirit of the novel. Whoever owned it previously should be committed.

I say we should have a central archive of Kerouac’s writing; that all this stuff should be brought back and placed securely together, maybe in a university. The commodification of the Beats, which has been encouraged by the respective Estates, is wrong, and counter-productive too. It contributes to the view of them, which exists beyond the fiercely devoted world of their admirers, as circus freaks; as fundamentally not serious. And whatever you think of his abilities, nobody was more serious than Kerouac.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Statement on the Bruce Hodder for the Chron Arts Section Campaign

 It came to my attention recently that a fellow known by the curious sobriquet “Bartholomew Bard” had started a campaign on Facebook to have me installed as the chief columnist for the arts section of my local newspaper, the Northampton Chronicle. I thought this was a strange idea at first and considered refusing to co-operate with Mr. Bard’s undoubtedly very selfless labours. My writing is, after all, an acquired taste. I am sometimes intemperate, sometimes ungrammatical, my sentences are sometimes too long, and have too many clauses, and on occasion an idea will be perfectly clear and sensible in my head but read like gobbledygook on the page. My taste in the arts tends towards the new-ish and the Underground as well; I have little interest in the canon in literature or poetry (for example) other than in the sense that it can, approached with the right kind of critical irreverence, provide a springboard for intelligent new creations. Do the readers of the Chron want to be confronted with that every time they open the paper or go online? a literary Mr. Hyde who comes out at night with cloven hooves and too much body hair to stamp all over the rules and the status quo?

Well, maybe not. Or maybe. But that last question leads to another one: what is the arts section of a newspaper for? Is it the creative (and I use that term loosely) equivalent of the takeaway menus that get shoved through my door every day? A Willy Russell play and a Mersey Beats reunion, thirty pounds for both at the Derngate this week, if you book early? Does the arts section of a paper exist to drum up business for the local theatres (who will in turn advertise in the paper)? And why does it always pitch its message at people who aren’t generally interested in the arts? People who will only go to see a play if it has a tv actor in it. Or people who will only attend a literary festival if it’s in the grounds of a big house like Althorp and there are lots of tv chefs on the menu. Do the editors of these papers believe that their only audience is fat couch potatoes and middle class arrivistes? Their demographic research might show that, but people come to a newspaper because of what they know they’ll find; if the paper changes tone or direction, there could be a whole new audience. And what of all those serious consumers who are already out there, silently waiting for a reason not to flip over to the classifieds section? A real hardcore arts enthusiast is the type of man or woman who’ll cross the street when they see a researcher approaching with a clipboard.

You either need the arts or you don’t. I think you do. (I would, I’m a poet.) And in my town there are poets, painters, musicians, deejays and writers who never get near the arts section of the paper; but it’s their work that keeps Northampton alive. And it’s the patronage of the minority of people who know about them that keep them going, by lifting their morale if not by lining their pockets. (No one has any money down where the real work is being done.) So I have agreed to co-operate with Bartholomew Bard, whoever he is, because I believe he’s right to say that an arts section should be written by someone who’s working in the arts, who has contacts in the arts, who knows about the arts and doesn’t have to look every reference up on Wikipedia before he finishes his article. Even a weekly column by a poet or a painter or a guitar player placed in the middle of all the usual blather about Pauline Quirke and this month’s magician and next month’s touring has-been would give the section some credibility, some meat, making it a part of the paper that people would turn to first. And though I’m not perfect, by any means – I don’t have to tell readers of Suffolk Punch that – I am the ideal person to write that column, looking at what Norman Mailer once called “the talent in the room.”

We’ll see what comes of it. I don’t expect Mr. Bard’s campaign to succeed, and I have told him so. To be so optimistic about the possibility of positive change in the turgid backwaters of local journalism he must be very young. But every once in a while, before I remember to be cynical, I catch myself thinking how marvellous it would be if the campaign worked. Once the word was out, Northampton could become a real cultural hub; not just a middling town where the council spends large sums of money on luxury venues for dilettantes to sit in and watch the same old shit. (Bruce Hodder.)

Learn more at Bruce Hodder for the Chron Arts Section Campaign

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Review: The Lowdown. A Literary Arts Annual.

The Lowdown. Street Corner Press, USA. 236 pages. $23 incl. shipping, $35 (American) overseas. Send dollars, American cheques or money orders to: Robert M. Zoschke, P.O. Box 38, Ellison Bay, WI 54210.

                   "After-image" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, cover art for The Lowdown

As for Mr. D. knocking at the back door,
the poet’s not in,
so fuck you
for now
           (from “Mr. Death at the Back Door” by Norbert Blei)

I approach the idea of reviewing the literary arts annual The Lowdown with a sense of heavy responsibility in a way. As far as I know it was the last literary project Norbert Blei undertook, in partnership with poet Robert M. Zoschke, and that makes it significant, in literary terms. Norb was a heavyweight; his passing leaves a gap in the lives of a great many people who knew him in person, or on the page and the computer screen. When a light like that goes out, you want to write BIG enough to do it justice.

But leaving aside all that – I suspect Norb wouldn’t have much time for it anyway – The Lowdown, edited by Zoschke, is just a really superior book. Its 236 pages assemble many of the best poets working in the small press (which in general is the only press worth reading) from the last fifty years. d.a.levy is here; Steve Dalachinsky (who also provides some beautiful collages) is here; S.A. Griffin (plus collages) and t.kilgore splake (with poetry and photos) are here; Ralph Murre and Sharon Auberle are here; Scott Wannberg is here; Geoff Stevens is here (I once thought Geoff a kind of demon because he had the royal nerve to reject some of my poems [they were crap]); A.D.Winans and Catfish McDaris appear – Catfish offering, among other things, a poem called “My Magnum Opus” which my girlfriend read to me last night, making us both laugh out loud. I won’t quote it here, though. That would be like giving away the plot of a movie. And Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who published “Howl” and to some extent kicked off the Beat Generation and all the small press/ underground waves that followed it, has furnished Zoschke with the painting for the cover.

The list above only covers a third of the contributors to the book. I will list all of them at the end of the review to give everybody fair exposure and eliminate the possibility that I am making The Lowdown seem less interesting with my own unconsciously prejudiced selections.

There are only three prose works in the annual: “Trespassing” and “Wild” by Sam Pickering, a new writer to me (according to the author bios in the final pages, that places me in a very small minority in the intelligent world); and “On the Road, the Movie?” in which Gerald Nicosia recounts the genesis of the recent Walter Salles movie, the story of his own involvement with the project and his feelings about the finished work. He seems to feel the way most of us do: it was a good stab at a novel that would always have been difficult to film, but with the talent Salles had personally and the people he had gathered in the crew, it could have been a whole lot better. Indeed.

It is often a bad idea for poets or writers to include their own work in something they edit. I never did when I was editing Beatnik, my weekly online poetry blog; I was always a poor judge of my own writing and I knew it. Robert Zoschke has taken the risk by including some of his in The Lowdown; but his gamble pays dividends to the reader. Rob was always a good poet, as his collection Made in America testified a few years ago. Now whatever he has been through in his life and because of all the hard nights he has spent at the writing desk, just working, (which is the only way), he has become a poet of real force and power. Very little I’ve read lately matches the kick-in-the-guts confessional honesty of poems like “noxious river”:

the divorce
that I never wanted
that has turned
my life
into a walking death

Pretty strong meat, eh? But I’ve been through the shit myself in the last year or two and I can take my meat strong, even though I’m a vegetarian. Rob’s telling the truth about where he’s been and what he’s felt along the way; no posturing in the literary manner and no pretending that he’s tough and doesn’t care either. “Write what you know,” instructors always tell poets. It’s remarkable how few take the advice and wind up filtering what they know through the voices of all the poets they have heard.

There’s a similar honesty in (as you might expect) A.D. Winans, who debunks the post-Bukowski myth that poverty is romantic in “Down and Out”:

…the smell of shit is still the smell of shit

The unifying themes of The Lowdown, if it can be said to have any, are art and life: the loveliness of both, the madness of both and the terrible pain that both can cause you if you turn your back for just a moment. That’s Rob’s wisdom as editor and the old intelligent eye of Norb, which watches over the book  now as it travels on its way across the country and with any luck, the world, to eager, receptive readers. The love Norb left behind is memorialised in poems by splake (“missing norbert blei/our father norbito” – “rest in peace”) and Ed Markowski in “Winter Wind”:

I Chant & Conjure
The Dead Poet’s Voice

Then Zoschke brings those of us who knew Norb to our knees with an epistolary poem to his departed cohort, imagining him among dead friends and heroes in some Chicago bar in Heaven (Norb was a Chicago native):

while all that long lost and now found again blessed tomfoolery
keeps you gloriously occupied until we see each other again
                        (from “In Memory of Norbert Blei”)

Ah, Zoschke, you swine, if you’re going to do things like that you should send out free handkerchiefs with each copy of the book! (Really, I read that out loud and it made me cry because I know that the poet means every single word.)

The Lowdown might seem a little expensive for some poetry aficionados when considered sight unseen (even after a glowing review); certainly some of my literary compatriots have told me they were interested, but felt they couldn’t afford it. But it’s so sumptuously decorated and presented, and its collection of poets and artists is so fine, it might be worth prioritising this over two or three other purchases in the literary field this year, if you can. You won’t find anything better in any of the book shops I know of, however much cash and supposed expertise the major publishing houses have behind them. And proceeds from sales of The Lowdown don’t go to stuffy, arrogant shits at Faber; they will fund a scholarship in the name of Karen Teskie, an artist featured in the annual who died tragically young in a car accident. That’s high motivation and deserves whatever reward we can give it.

The Lowdown Contributors List
Sharon Auberle, Daniel Barth, John Bennett, Norbert Blei, Sarah Elizabeth Burkey, Alan Catlin, Steve Dalachinsky, Christopher Felver, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jude Genereaux, S.A. Griffin, Harold Grutzmacher, Chad Horn, Emmett Johns, Jennifer Lee, D.A. Levy, Lyn Lifshin, Philomene Long, Ed Markowski, Ellen Maybe, Dean McClain, Joanna McClure, Catfish McDaris, Ralph Murre, Charlie Newman, Gerald Nicosia, Yuko Otomo, Sam Pickering, Marge Piercy, Charles Rossiter, Aram Saroyan, Catherine Serguson, Emily Rose Kahn-Sheahan, Herschel Silverman, Marjorie Simon, t.kilgore splake, Geoff Stevens, Karen Teskie, Rob Vogt, Scott Wannberg, A.D. Winans, Eddie Woods, Robert M. Zoschke