A POET PRIEST
As always, for Marcia
When I was a child attending Saint Bernard’s Catholic Elementary School, I was teacher’s pet eight years in a row. I’m sure it had something to do with my desire to please my mother and therefore every woman with whom I came in contact (like the nuns and female lay teachers) as well as my intellect, politeness, curly hair, and long lash-laden bright blue-green eyes. And every nun would tell me at some point in the year that I ought to become a priest. Similarly when I went to Saint Joseph’s Preparatory High School, a Jesuit school, my Latin teacher said the same thing. Well as much as I would have liked to please my devout Catholic mother who would have loved having a priest as a son, I told all those with clerical designs on my future: “Hell no! I’m going to marry and have kids,” – a politically correct way of informing them that I was not about to be celibate. Still, I must admit that I had great love of ritual, both secular and religious: taking the field for a football game and the coin toss (as captain I always choose heads) and Sunday Mass, to name an example of each. And as you’ll see, sometimes, if fate is kind, one can have it both ways.
In 1979 when I married Marcia Zimmer in my Pearl Street back yard, my publisher, Larry Lake of BOWERY PRESS served as our officiant. It was a most unique ceremony in that Marcia and I both wrote love letters to each other that we shared aloud, I wore no shirt, poems were read and burned in a silver bowl, and the beard that Larry sported was the antithesis of the clean cut looks of my Lutheran in-laws from Wyoming. Photos from that day capture the utter dismay of my father-in-law, an extremely conservative Republican Wyoming State Senator. In fact, I’m not sure he ever got over me, an East Coast city boy who he considered to be “anti-establishment.” After all, I did have friends of diverse races and sexual orientation, I came from a union family, I was a writer making ends meet as a waiter, and my long curly locks were always a little too unkempt, too much, for the wind that is Wyoming.
One result of my wedding ceremony was that a few years later while living in Austin Texas, I mentioned in a phone call to Larry that I, too, had a desire to write and conduct rituals as a witch friend and her fiancé wanted me to assist with their wedding ceremony. And then a few months later in the mail, I received the second most cherished document of my life, my ordination papers, - the first being my marriage license signed by Marcia, me, Lenny Cernila, Barbara Timmons and Larry Lake who listed his title as Poet Priest. Apparently upon Larry’s recommendation and nomination, I had been ordained as a Minister in the Temple of Man by the founder of the Temple of Man, Robert Alexander, who went by the name of Baza. Literally, my Ordination means worlds more than getting paychecks, being published, graduating from Drexel University or receiving awards for community service or poetry.
Today, because I write and conduct some sixty or so marriage ceremonies a year, I am often queried about the nature of my ministry as my ceremonies are like no other: did you get ordained on line? Are you a “Universal Life” minister? Where did you study? How did you become a minister?
Well, the Temple of Man, to put it plainly is probably the hippest religious organization in the world. This is its story as I know it.
In 1960 a rather gifted and notorious poet by the name of Stuart Z. Perkoff was recorded during the FBI’s first successful use of a reel-to-reel tape recorder selling marijuana to a friend. A suction cup microphone with a wire leading to a tape recorder had been affixed to the window of his pad. Because Stuart was becoming an (albeit reluctant) anti-establishment icon in America, he was just too revolutionary, too dangerous as a role model, for the likes of J Edgar Hoover. Perkoff was the protagonist hero - perhaps anti-hero – of Larry Lipton’s 1959 novel, The Holy Barbarians – one of the first novels about beatniks, the publication of which incited tour bus loads of lookie-lous hoping to encounter beatniks to park in front of Café West, the coffeehouse that Stuart had founded. Café West was the LA gathering spot for those seeking a life outside the material world of 50s’ America. To avoid the throngs of tourists hoping to spy on the underground, Stuart and his friend Tony Scibella used to hide on the rooftops of nearby buildings whenever the masses invaded what had once been the quiet destitute seaside village of Venice, a place they had hoped would serve as a low-rent Mecca of sorts for those seeking a lifestyle outside the norm, a higher consciousness based on art and love. Stuart had appeared as himself, a beatnik poet, on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life, accompanied by a beautiful and extremely tall Las Vegas showgirl (with close to a foot of teased hair atop her head she seemed twice as tall as Stuart with his shaved head). Throughout the broadcast, Stuart’s quick wit charmed Groucho and everyone in America watching the nationally syndicated TV show. When Groucho first began interviewing Stuart, Groucho referenced his notes: “Mr. Perkoff, it says here that you are a writer,” to which Stuart replied, “Oh yes, Groucho, I write home for money every week!” And the quick repartee and quick-witted banter continued for the duration of the show. Groucho was so charmed by Stuart that he became a silent patron of sorts, encouraging and supporting the establishment of The Gas House in Venice, a rent-free artist community where those who resided had only to keep making art to maintain their residency. But, as I mentioned earlier, the unwanted fame that came Stuart’s way brought the FBI spotlight and tape recorder to bear on Stuart and his friends and he wound up being incarcerated for years in the Penitentiary at Terminal Island where some other notorious criminals like Al Capone and Timothy Leary once resided, a bitter example of a most unsuitable punishment for a non-violent offense, an act now perfectly legal.
One day a friend of Stuart’s, the artist/poet/printer Robert Alexander, visited the prison but was told that visitors - other than family (father, son, brother, wife, etc) or chaplains - were not allowed. And so for this very pragmatic reason - among other less pragmatic reasons such as his interest in art, poetry, community and ritual - Baza founded The Temple of Man in 1960, a non-profit religious organization. To visit an incarcerated friend. The Temple of Man’s 1967 California incorporation papers state:
“The Temple of Man is formed in dedication to the sentient individual, creative man, and for the preservation of his creative works, in order to help broaden perception and increase the understanding between all men everywhere, who, being unified by the supreme force of life, are working toward a higher social and spiritual evolution.” “It is not worship so much as a quest,” the statement goes on. “It is a way of becoming, of liberation.” Two of the most well known “tenets” of “The Temple of Man are that Art Is Love Is God,” the words of the artist Wallace Berman that Stuart Perkoff wrote upon the wall of his Café West coffeehouse, and that “The Temple of Man is Within,” something the poet David Meltzer appropriated from the Bible.
I happened to meet Baza in the late Seventies when I traveled to California to retrieve a dog I once loved and used to own that was facing euthanasia. I had been involved with the celebrated poet James Ryan Morris during the last months of his life in Denver and Jimmy’s wife Diana, upon hearing of my plans to go to LA to rescue a dog, had suggested that I visit Jimmy’s good friend Bob in Venice. At the time my knowledge of The Temple of Man, the once famous beatnik scene that was Venice, and of Robert Alexander’s status as a great American artist (Baza’s artwork, publications, and personal letters are in the Smithsonian) were zilch. It was a meeting that changed my life.
I remember being almost afraid of ringing the bell outside the gate of Baza’s home, for I knew not what I’d find. Having known what Jimmy Morris had been into, his predilections, I feared I might be interrupting an orgy or walking into a shooting gallery. But what I found was a beach house full of assemblage art, paintings, collage, sculpture and published writings; and an artist who welcomed me as a brother, “Do you and Marcia need a place to stay?” offering me refuge from the world I felt so alienated from, 1978 America. My afternoon with Baza truly opened my eyes to the magic of personal art and reassured me that there were others like me, a notion instrumental in suffusing the loneliness, the Steppenwolf separateness that haunted me. For Baza was a father and husband as well as world-class artist. I got it that one does not have to be insane or an alcoholic or a drug addict to be an artist, as I mistakenly believed. One only had to love.
Toward the end of his life, Alexander wanted to open a cabaret space, as well as a serious museum and archive for the collection of Temple art and ephemera he’d amassed over the previous 25 years. Many of those artists were now gone, their names engraved in brass plaques attached to a shrine he built in his garden out of abandoned timbers from the old Ocean Park pier; the scraps of Venice’s past now buoying the dead of his clan: Stuart Perkoff, Ben Talbert, Artie Richer, Wallace Berman, Lenny Bruce, Dennis Hopper, Larry Lake. Someday my name will be there too.
So I believe you can have it all, that everybody gets what he or she wants. I became a celebrant of ritual, a poet priest, all because the FBI stung and jailed a celebrated poet and his good friend could not get in to visit. And I married and had kids.