Original Photos for Cover Montage
- Joe Kinneavey & Marcia Ward
13 Sounds Cover Art - James Ryan Morris
I thought once . . . /
surrounded by assassins
was the common reference.
& so leaving
all of it behind
I went away to here, this
isolation and study
but the nite falls
across the empty glass
& one wishes for speech
no matter how stupid or hackneyed
just that warmth
which human exchange provides
(from the mountains
the lites prominent
its understood why
man built cities, came in from the cold
settled next to another tongue
I first saw and heard the most influential man in my life, the man who wrote the poem, “People,” at Naropa University on the Pearl Street Mall in the summer of 1978. I had gone to the literary reading to hear William Burroughs, the famous beat novelist, but, as it turned out, William was indisposed; fortunately for me, another writer about whom I knew nothing and whose name I did not quite catch when introduced was asked by the host, Allen Ginsberg, to fill in. The Croupier Press had recently published the man’s book, 13 Sounds, a “greatest hits” if you will, thirteen selected poems that spanned a quarter of a century, to quote the intro: “A toast to the hipsters who remain!” Two poets, Gregory Corso and Antler, were also on the bill.
A novice poet myself I was hoping to take in this literary event to get an understanding of what “being a poet” actually meant. Besides the singer Bob Dylan, the only poet I had ever actually heard in person read poetry was John Ciardi, the poet, etymologist, translator and teacher who wrote the text about teaching poetry, How Does A Poem Mean. I was teaching high school English at the time and thought hearing Ciardi’s take on poetry might be useful. As there was a question and answer period after his reading (which I characterized as “ennui verbalized”), I asked Ciardi what he thought about Bob Dylan. His response that “Dylan is not a poet” convinced me that I need not buy his book, even though the school board would have reimbursed me.
Well, the night at Naropa the poet whose name I didn’t know was preceded first by Antler whose work was a smarmy take on Walt Whitman, a long lined hippy-esque homage to the decaying beauty of the American environment, and then by Gregory Corso who read some nonsense verse he had written while lecturing at Harvard, a mockery of classicism in the arts which I interpreted as jealousy of the intellect of Sappho and Homer. Having heard from a friend, Charlie Ross, a student at Naropa, that Corso took pride in denigrating Dylan, “Dylan’s not a poet, he’s a rhymer,” I must admit I paid the legendary Beat scant attention. And then the mystery Burroughs replacement took the stage and the patter of his vernacular take on poesy blew me away. Whereas I had found Antler utterly derivative (hence boring) and Corso a dismissive show-off (hence repugnant), this man was, for me, the real deal, a man celebrating friends and great art while giving the finger to peanut butter and jelly America. His delivery was quiet and songlike with his anger-turned-art bubbling, nay, seething, just below the surface of his vocalization. I felt like I was watching a true poet in action, hearing poetry live without musical accompaniment (as in Dylan), for the first time in my life. I was experiencing something that would color the rest of my life. I could not have imagined just how importantly this man whose name I had not bothered to take note of would figure in my life.
But, of course, after the reading I was soon back to the everyday world of waiting tables, courting my future wife, walking the dogs (a Malamute and a Labrador that an ex-girlfriend had saddled me with), and trying to figure out how poetry would ever lead to a living or lifestyle. At the time I had taken to reading poetry in public by going on stage while musicians went on break at street fairs and in nightclubs. At one street fair where I read between sets of the Robin Banks Band, Jessie Graf, a poet and member of Denver’s Society for the Advancement of Poetics, an alliance of poets that sponsored something called Denver Poets Day at Civic Center Park, approached me. He suggested I should read at the next POETS DAY, and that if I was up for it, he’d get me readings elsewhere. Naturally I was flattered and enthusiastic as I dreamed of becoming a famous poet. Denver Poets Day was a month out and I immediately began creating and memorizing and staging the poems I would recite.
Well, I show up at Denver Poets Day and I’m on fire with anticipation and pride in my new poems and my frenetic rapid cut machine gun style delivery; and, in my estimation, I do deliver. My set is well received and it takes a while for me to fall off cloud nine, but when I do come back to the here and now, my world takes a decided turn towards the very future I have lived. James Ryan Morris, the very man who had rocked my world in Boulder filing in for Burroughs, and a friend of his, Larry Lake, take the stage and, reading mano a mano, proceed to define for me the nature of friendship in the arts and poetry. Well, as it turns out I am so blown away by Morris and Lake’s reading that I become keenly aware of my amateur status as both a writer and performer. Whereas I had hoped I’d be well received, it was apparent Morris knew he would be. It was all in the precision of the writing, its intellect. Nothing was from the gut; nothing depended on the theatrics of his body, its motion, and its appearance. Simply said, all was in the words for poetry is about the poem, not the poet.
At the conclusion of Denver Poets Day, Jessie Graf lets me know that he has set up a reading for me at a Global Village, a folk music venue on Pennsylvania Street in the Wash Park hood run by the musician David Feretta. As the hot shot new kid in town, I’m going to be appearing with no one other than the national cultural critic and the publisher of Denver’s late 60s Mile High and Underground newspaper and author of numerous books, James Ryan Morris. Thus begins my connection to this life as an artist I have lived.
First thing I did when I returned home later that day was to put everything I had ever written in the bottom of my old clothes drawer. I did not want my old work easily accessible or to have any influence upon what I might create as I intended to write in a completely different way, as Kerouac had done after reading a letter from Neal Cassady. “In the vernacular;” I told myself, “in my own voice.” Jessie Graf had also suggested that I introduce myself to Morris at some point, as Jimmy owned a bookstore, The Blacksmith, on 17th Avenue. And I did.
Our first meeting was a little strange. I was a bicycle rider in 1978 as I was always trying to keep up with the physicality of my new girlfriend Marcia, an avid bike rider, who was nine years my junior. When I arrived at Blacksmith Books, I was wearing a surgical mask as I wore one to keep the brown cloud, ubiquitous as it was in those days, out of my lungs. I was so nervous about meeting Morris that when I entered his storefront, I forgot to remove my mask as I approached the counter behind which Morris sat watching I LOVE LUCY on a small black and white TV. Averting his eyes from the TV, to see me approaching, he immediately pulled out from under the counter a handgun and pointed it at me, with a look in his incredibly blue eyes, the bluest I have ever seen, that could turn fire into ice. He said not a word; all I could hear was my own heart beating and the patter of Desi as he scolded Lucy about some silly faux pas. It was then I became aware of my own faux pas and removed my mask, apologizing: “Sorry, I wear it for riding my bike. I’m Ed Ward. We’re to read together at Global Village and I thought it best we meet.” Only when Morris saw my bike outside leaning against his storefront window, did he stow the handgun again under the counter. He then said, “You look nervous as hell. You need to calm down. Here, take one of these,” offering me an assortment of what I presumed to be downers. I recognized some little blue pills as Valium (my ex-wife, Carol, her choice of drug during our painful divorce) and took Morris up on his offer. I told myself this is one strange way to begin a friendship, as I washed down the little blue pills with a swig of his proffered Jack Daniels.
Two months later, after hanging out at the bookstore a number of times, talking poetry and art, I await our reading as only a novice about to read with a master can: in need of more Valium. But as it turns out, I never get to read with Jimmy as Morris dies two days before our reading, having overdosed on alcohol and barbiturates in his bed in his cabin in Wondervu. A week or so later I attend his funeral and burial at Dory Hill Cemetery outside Blackhawk at which old guard Denver bohemians from LA and Denver read poetry, sing songs, and play jazz; and I am introduced to them all as “the poet who was going to read with Jimmy,” a moniker that somehow gives me more street-cred that I deserve, and I become brother to a group of men and women most of whom are ten or twenty years my senior. Somehow, my immediate family that consisted of three sisters, one in Saint Louis, and two outside of Philadelphia, now consisted of dozens from Denver and Venice Beach California, a place I had never even been to.
A month later, however, I have reason to visit Venice as my ex-wife, the soon to be head of a Danish film company with headquarters in Beverly Hill that made B movies for European distribution (Frank Stallone who spent his teenage years in Tacony, where Carol and I grew up, was Carol’s “star” actor) had called to tell me that a dearly beloved dog I had raised, that she had gotten custody of, was in need of a new home as Dylan Dog snarled and growled every time her new husband, a coked up talent scout who placed guests on TV game shows, came home from work. “It’s either with you or to the shelter,” Carol had said, and Marcia and I flew to California to rescue my beloved Bearded Collie English Sheepdog mix. Prior to our departure, Diana Morris, Jimmy’s widow, had suggested that we visit an old friend of Jimmy’s from the 50s, Baza Alexander. So, as it was when I first met Jimmy Morris, it was with great anxiety that I stood outside the arched gateway of 1439 Cabrillo Avenue in Venice Beach. I wasn’t sure if my ringing the doorbell at the gate would interrupt an orgy or shooting gallery shenanigans, behaviors Morris had been into. But surprise, what I found was The Temple of Man, the most important organization to influence my take on art and life.
Today, almost 40 years later, Baza, who died in 1987, exerts still a strong influence upon me, an indelible mark on my soul, via my ordination into his Temple of Man whose premise that “Art is Love is God” - something the artist Wallace Berman wrote across the wall of Stuart Perkoff’s Venice West coffeehouse in 1959 - remains the guiding principle of my life. And to think, it all started with nervous Eddie asking David Smith of the Robin Banks band if he could take the stage between sets at a street fair outside the Oxford Hotel. Don’t know where I’d be today, had the singer said “No.” Chances are I wouldn’t be making money in my 60s writing and performing marriage ceremonies as a minister, hosting this event, writing stories, painting watercolors, or rehearsing my play, MY BEST SHOT, a docudrama that reenacts the scene and reading of Jimmy Morris and Larry Lake thirty nine years ago, something I’ll be staging for Denver Poets Day on August 6th this summer. Hope you can make it!