… a Trotskyist, Surrealist Poet.
And what, pray tell, would ever cause someone – anyone! – to identify me as such an odd chimera? I’m frequently mistaken for someone else but the answer to this misidentification is found back in the mists of… well, back in the roiling fumes of grass in the past.
Way back in the early 1970s, I had ambitions, or at least aspirations, to be a poet. How and why and when I jettisoned that goal is another story, but part of the project of becoming a poet involved attending poetry readings. The really big Chicago event at that time was a weekly reading organized by Richard Friedman’s Yellow Press at a local theatre on Chicago’s north side.
For all that the Yellow Press readings were really the place to be for poets and readers thereof, the audiences were usually no more than a few dozen. And for me, the readings were almost always excruciatingly boring, no matter the quality of the verse. There was one memorable exception.
Friedman had scored a big fish. Robert Bly was to read. Given the vagaries of the Chicago Transit Authority, I arrived early that day and found the event in a larger than usual venue. It was already well populated by representatives of probably every English Department in the city. With my long hair and ragged Army field jacket, I didn’t exactly fit in, but neither was I unique. Most of the empty seating was in front. I took a seat in the first row.
Show time! Robert Bly came down the aisle to the stage. But then he stopped and sat next to me. Looking very intense and pointing to a utility table on stage, he hissed, “I’m going to sit on that table and read from there.”
I was thoroughly confused but managed a shrug and said something like: “Cool.”
Bly hadn’t gotten far into his first poem when suddenly a handful of long haired characters – a few in pristine Army field jackets – rushed the stage, scattering leaflets and shouting: “Bourgeois Pig!”, “Assassin!”, “M_____ F_____!” and other assorted obscenities. One threw a pie in Bly’s face. They didn’t pause but skedaddled out the exit with Friedman and a few friends in close pursuit. They may have gotten away.
As Bly wiped the pie from his face, he explained that he had published a book of his own translations of work by the great Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. When Bly announced his reading tour, a local collective of Trotskyist Surrealist poets threatened to “get him” if Bly dared to read in Chicago. Their beef was not only that Neruda was a Stalinist Communist (I can recall at least one embarrassing poetic homage to Stalin by Neruda.) but in 1940 while serving as a member of Chile’s diplomatic staff in Mexico, Neruda helped a suspect in an assassination attempt on Leon Trotsky get out of jail and out of Mexico. As Wikipedia put it:
“In 1940, after the failure of an assassination attempt against Leon Trotsky, Neruda arranged a Chilean visa for the Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, who was accused of having been one of the conspirators in the assassination. Neruda later said that he did it at the request of the Mexican President, Manuel Ávila Camacho. This enabled Siqueiros, then jailed, to leave Mexico for Chile, where he stayed in Neruda’s private residence. In exchange for Neruda’s assistance, Siqueiros spent over a year painting a mural in a school in Chillán. Neruda’s relationship with Siqueiros attracted criticism, but Neruda dismissed the allegation that his intent had been to help an assassin as “sensationalist politico-literary harassment”.”
I don’t remember any more of Bly’s reading that evening. I do remember Friedman glaring at me as I left and again every week after.
Really, Richard, I was not then nor have I ever been…
But damn! That was the best poetry reading I ever attended.
2 thoughts on “I Am Not Now, Nor Have I Ever Been…”
For me, poetry readings suffer from being too fast or too slow, part of why I’ve become committed to recordings instead.
Recordings, audio or visual, can be good. Some of my favorite stuff these days has been poetry turned into video performance. My problem with readings back in the Yellow Press days was that they were READINGS not performances, as if the poets were unable to go beyond poetry as a literary form. No wonder they were boring. If not music, as you are doing, they should at least be oral interpretation. But that’s just My Humble Opinion.
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