I recently read Just Kids, Patti Smith’s memoir. While relishing her tales of bohemian life, I found the ambition for fame that she shared with Mapplethorpe utterly foreign to my own experience of the era. I was led to set down these few vignettes of people dedicated to art with little regard for reward. These are random pictures, snapped in passing. Some of these poets are or were good friends, several I barely knew at all. Our celebrity mentality extends even to the arts, but thousands pursue their own visions while also fostering community.
I se that makaris amang the laif
Playis heir ther pageant, syne gois to graif
William Dunbar “Lament for the Makers”
Five hundred years now Dunbar’s gone who sang for noble Chaucer and all the crew, and fifty years since Rexroth’s young men flamed and cooled in “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Though premature to lament, I wish to set down a few characters, already too much forgotten in the frantic passage of our time.
The images well up: amiable Randy Fingland, who chattered poetry with absolute conviction and holy indirection, who walked the streets of Berkeley with poetry on sandwich boards and spun out lyric lines with a Dymo labelmaker to set high in Market Street corporate elevators hoping to propel some secretary’s mind to leaps of sudden joy. He conducted what some paper called the “toughest” reading series in the area at the Starry Plough. The reporter may have been influenced by the IRA posters on the wall or the ex-cons from the half-way house around the corner, finding their way with words. “Pay attention, motherfucker, I’ve got something to say.” He published in the smallest editions important work including translations from
Jack Hirschman whom one often encountered manic in North Beach Vesuvio’s tossing off page after page of polylingual multicolored pages each of which roared like an excited motorcycle.
Peter Pussydog (Stevens) wrapped his thin body in a suit lit by Christmas tree lights that flashed wisdom to all nearby and, though he trailed cords awkward behind, never slowed. He scandalized KPOO south of market poor people’s radio when he appeared on Poetry for the People and his name inspired weird obscenity fears among the third world managers who ever since their coup were never sure if poets were bourgeois individualists or real people’s artists. (Had they actually listened to his work, they might have had slightly more valid reservations about him.)
David Moe who plugged in the electric dictionary making everybody’s hair stand on end) outmarketed all other poetry rags by dealing Love Lights in midnight newspaper vending machines with naked people dancing on the cover but only dancing words within. Though this sold well in North Beach after the topless bars closed, the floor of Moe’s room at Project Artaud was littered with broken machines kicked by customers frustrated long before they dropped sad quarters in. If I am not mistaken, he founded the San Francisco Poetry Festival, yet, when he took the stage at midnight, after the big names had performed earlier, offering single words like glittering gems, for all to wonder at, heard catcalls rising from the dark hall. He later wrote the very practical volume How to be God Now.
Kirby Doyle went from juvenile delinquent to dandy to the street, wrote the eloquent Sapphobones and swigged all the way to Snyder’s Elymakee in the Sierras where we read under full moon midnight. He sought young love and never knew he was missing half his teeth till he found himself lost in Laguna Honda in the end.
Who was that nameless long-lost greybeard hipster from a SRO hotel who had no teeth at all and mumbled strange poems unintelligible to all and so he had to go on the air and let everybody know?
Artful Goodtimes who cultivated a lyric gentle waist-length beard and Ecstasy Clare and he taught each other preschool delight. He left in the end for Colorado’s talking gourds and magic mushrooms and, of all unlikely things, elective office, too;
and Kush (Steven Kushner), that saint for art, who now sits on the myriad visionary exhibits of the Poetry Museum for which San Francisco which will one day be grateful, whose Cloud House storefront had exhibits and readings and tapes, who hoped by to pull down peace with incantations and smoldered sage while Bob Kaufman lay up silent in the back loft, and we took to the streets and we were chased from the opera opening night and challenged by the downtown library (“You can’t read poetry in from of the Public Library!”) so we made do with spray-paint poetry stencils and once I burst my tambourine for very exuberance making a pitch to Mission street mothers in the early morning, preaching the word of poetry under grey San Francisco skies.