Stuart Perkoff is in
Poems and Prose by Philomene and John
Last Days of John Thomas
The Beats: An Existential Comedy
Eavesdropping on the Boardwalk
Gas House beat HQ
venice in a time of love
an appreciation of Stuart Z. Perkoff
by Pat Hartman
The title, venice in a time of love, is from one of Perkoffs poems. On this page, all the words in green are his. Many thanks to Philomene Long Thomas for her invaluable information and comments.
Voices of the Lady, a massive collection of the work of Stuart Z. Perkoff, convinces me that even someone who previously shunned poetry could acquire a hearing ear under the right circumstances.
those who came to me with love
For many of us, such knowledge is all too close to home. And its not hard to relate to this:
i send spies into the territory
Biographically, Perkoff was the quintessential (one might even say the stereotypical) beatnik: a feckless, usually broke substance-user with benign intentions who nevertheless couldnt fulfill responsibilities to much of anything other than his art; who served years in prison, got out at age 40, and didnt even make it to 44. One of the tenets of beat philosophy was voluntary poverty, the willingness to do without things in order to create space in ones life for rewards more nourishing and necessary. In one poem he takes inventory:
four walls & a narrow
He pushed the boundaries a little farther than some: idealism led him briefly to the Communist Party, the only political gang that seemed interested in helping the underdogs of a rapacious economic system. Of course, being who he was, he got crossways of the Party, too, because love and its words were so paramount to his existence. Later, he evolved into a pacifist anarchist, with a philosophy that calls not for causing the revolution but for becoming the revolution.
Like any poet worthy of the name, Perkoff had a rich and often tumultuous emotional life. Suzan Blanchard, whom he married in 1949, was angry and hurt when he abandoned her in the midst of labor pains to appear in a concert. (Temporary disappearances at childbirth time seem to have been a pattern.) They both loved and fought fiercely - i swear. we sucked the marrow from the bones. After a rough decade they called it quits, tried to reconcile (and even again much later), but it wasnt meant to be.
Perkoffs relationship with Jana Baragan was called by its participants the Great Miracle and they married on a finger of stone jutting into the sea. Later, when their shared husband was in prison, Jana and Suzan lived together for a time in Northern California, then Jana returned to Venice and succumbed to a drug overdose. Another important woman was Susan Berman - they ran away to Mexico and had a child - and his last love was Philomene Long.
Additionally, Perkoff was a draft resister and a heroin addict, who dared to drop acid in jail and other inimical settings. In short, a bad example. In fact he is the exact type of local citizen the gentrifiers would like to put in the memory hole. But as Leonard Cohen has noted, "magic loves the hungry." Also the strung out, the incarcerated, the seeker and the refuser.
.these are paths
A few words about hard drugs: according to the code of this society, its not okay to risk your life shooting up, but it is acceptable to risk your life for the aggrandizement of politicians and the enrichment of corporations. (As Perkoff notes, lists of names are not appropriate memorials.) Skiing can smash you up as bad as a car wreck. Fraternity pledging can be as hazardous and degrading as hanging out with a biker gang. Getting silicone blobs sewn onto your chest wall is dangerous. So is working on an oil rig. If my physical integrity is to be put at risk, who are the bureaucrats to pass rulings on the worthiness of my aspirations? This should be my decision. There are excellent reasons why people do extreme things. Those who jeopardized their lives with the needle at least left some poems behind.
One reason a person might have for doing extreme drugs
is because, as in primitive torture ordeals, through sacrifice and pain,
by a special grace, he sees what others do not. Reality is the raw material
needed for poems, so consequently
The use of power substances (quoting Stephen Ronan) allows one "to obtain the shamanic experience which he could then bring back to communicate to the other members of his tribe." And why is current morality so opposed to that crucial sacrament of fetching and telling? Might it be because the Shaman message is usually something along these lines, inspired by an encounter with the mundane world:
They think they are the doctor
Ronan also makes the point that Perkoffs desire, similar to that of any spiritual leader, was to bring like-minded members of the tribe "out of captivity in a corrupt empire and into a promised land of righteous living. In his case, it was ..a promised land called Venice West" Perkoff had a vision of Venice as a Shangri-La where people come to be healed or saved, albeit in strange ways. He was one of the prime movers responsible for forming the concept of Venice not only as a special place but as the place - the mecca, as so many have figuratively styled it; the center of the universe.
Free of illicit hard drugs during his last years, Perkoff developed a relationship with nicotine that probably caused his death in 1974.
Its tempting to think of him as one of those lost souls Ginsberg spoke of in his most quoted work -"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness .." It wasnt his own madness Perkoff was destroyed by, but that of the world. Like many who see too much for their own peace of mind, he was tortured by such visions as:
walls behind walls in
front of deceptions
To those of us who look at things from a slightly different angle, he was ultimately, exquisitely sane.
When obtaining visions and messages, Perkoff was in contact with one particular entity, "The Lady," the muse of poetry. Characterizing himself as the Ladys birth canal, he spoke of how the poems tear through me on their way to the world. Although he was the channel through which she spoke, he also spoke to her, especially with thankfulness.
you have given me the third eye with which to see you & put me thru sufficient pain to be aware of you .
The most plangent of these supplications to The Lady is an untitled work on page 310 of this edition. Under the influence of peyote, he even sighted Her (and also once in fire) and certainly recognized Her presence in mortal women. To Jana he wrote, the goddess clothed Herself in yr flesh, for me. I hope he gets the attention he deserves from feminist theorists and Womens Studies curricula.
There are of course poems on many other subjects. The "Junk Nursery Rhymes" - which might be described as Mad Magazine meets William Burroughs - are wicked with black humor, some would say reprehensible. Whereas Tom Robbins wrote a whole novel to glorify the thumb, in Perkoffs philosophy that digit has a lot to answer for.
"Letter to Kirby Doyle" is one of my favorites, about a meeting with an old friend after a lengthy separation. Another favorite takes the same form. HOW I AM: A LETTER TO JOAN THORNTON begins,
i am a mass of weighted flesh,
No matter how disturbing his lifestyle, there can be no doubt of Perkoffs genius. Words were the straw he spun into gold, and any walls within reach - his own, those of friends and the Venice West coffeehouse - were adorned with poems and quotations. This one (not in the collection) he wrote on the wall of Philomene Long (Thomas):
all words are holy
He was an enjoyable person to be around; and to his everlasting
credit, both recognition by tourists and the starry-eyed admiration of
young wanna-be poets made him spiritually uneasy. He held the attention
and respect of his peers - Robert Creeley says, "For poets Stuart
was LAs heart." Tony Scibella called him the poet maker. "We
all owe Stuart." Years after his death, S. A. Griffin said, "They
defer to Stuart quite often. It's almost like he's still alive."
Another true thing can be said about Stuart Z. Perkoff: he was the perfect prototype of a man who did not belong in prison, a textbook example of the nonviolent "offender" who suffers from the flagrant insanity of the War on Some Drugs. For selling marijuana, Perkoff was locked up: surely one of the more pitiful wastes of public funds ever foisted on society. Two stanzas taken from a poem written in the 70s but equally apposite today:
the leaders are denied
the politics are obscure.
Im not the only one who shares Perkoffs infatuation with Venice, California, amounting to a passion that even the most rabid real estate speculator will never suspect the existence of. The ocean and its shore birds were never-ending sources of inspiration. Theres a whole section of Venice poems, plus many more scattered throughout the other divisions. Two titles are "On Returning to Venice" and "Venice California is a city born of a peculiar madness". "At the Edge" says something about how the city by the sea is more conscious than most locales of being poised at a division between worlds. The environment was a metaphor for a life lived on the edge in more ways than one. Lines that sing of Venice are scattered throughout: let me take my city into my wounds One piece evokes the old canal district at night. Another untitled poem includes such lines as, sitting at the top of the venice scumball machine ..waiting to be chewed in the great venice slam . What beauty could be found in winos vomiting on Windward and Market streets? Its hard to say, but Perkoff inspires the suspicion that it existed. Theres even a work addressed to Abbot Kinney, who conceptualized and created Venice of America -
kinney, on yr streets
The specifically designated Venice Poems are at the same time concerned with the lethal emotional climate surrounding the crisis of mental illness that overwhelmed Suzan Perkoff and the marriage. In them he expressed not only the personal madness & visions of its founder, but the madness that was america around the turn of the century ..
Madness or no, Venice was a place where so much unbelievable wonder has rocked our brite eyed skulls that it makes ya wonder, like they say, it really makes ya, as it were, wonder.
here they come
One piece explores the three-way creative symbiosis that grew between Perkoff, Tony Scibella and Frank Rios.
almost every day frankie &
tony & I
We get snatches of their banter - Frankie, you invented a new language because you cant read old ones.
This is a digression but one I have to make. One verse fascinates me for its resonance with one of the first poems I ever noticed in this life, by Anselm Hollo.
lets make it to the rock hole
The stanza of Perkoffs that recalls that magic for me is
mother, may we go out to poem?
Perkoffs final day on earth was captured in a recorded conversation with Philomene Long (later Thomas). In a poem he once laid bare a revelation on the fear of death:
Now that it is seen to be a
Everywhere he lived, the wall would
be covered with quotations or lines that came to him. I once photographed
them in his apartment on Paloma, but lost the negatives (at least up to
now.) I only have a print of something he wrote when (in his last month
of life) a crazy Venice woman came into his pad screaming "Get up,
Stuart! Get up! GOD HATES CRIPPLES." Stuart leaned over and wrote
"GOD HATES CRIPPLES" and then "GIVE ME SOME SLACK"
on his wall.
There is a 90-minute audiotape hosted by Philomene Long, called Stuart Z. Perkoff: Memories. Also see Stuart Perkoff / Philomene Long - Death Bed Conversation
FOR STUART Z. PERKOFF
© 2004 - 2012 Pat Hartman