Recently I drove up to Las Cruces to hear Roberto Tejada read his poetry. I knew Roberto from 1994 when I was in Mexico City as part of an exchange program funded jointly by the US/NEA and it’s counterpart in Mexico, INBA. His was a fine reading and and our brief conversations before and afterwards opened all sorts of doors in my head about poetry. One thing in particular came up that made me very happy. Roberto is a fan of Paul Blackburn’s poetry--his musicality, the way a line is scored and jumps to the next--and we commiserated about the lack of attention that Paul receives these days, especially in universities and in the on-going conversations about the evolution of our contemporary poetics. In the midst of our conversation I remembered the photo (1967) above--Lee and Paul in our first home on Somerville Street near Union Avenue in Memphis, Tennessee (as you can see on the left of the photo, Lee in some sort of frenzy had painted all the Kool-Aid characters on the wall).
I had first met Paul in the summer of 1964 at the Aspen Writers’ Workshop, the original one organized by poet Robert Vas Dias with a big hand from his good friend Toby Olson. I went back in 1965 and that’s when I met Lee. Paul befriended me and mentored me as I struggled to write poems. He inspired me with stories about visiting with Pound in Venice and readings in the Village and he carried with him a cassette recorder and a large archive of tapes that we listened to. He was like that. (I've written about this in a previous previous entry.) Paul was traveling through the South on some sort of government grant reading and doing workshops in black universities. He had been in Atlanta, he was to be at Lemoyne-Owen College in Memphis for a few days and then he was going to go to Nashville to visit Fisk University and Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee State University). Back then Lee and I had a BMW R-60 motorcycle, a glorious quiet machine, and one day I took Paul across the Mississippi River and we walked around the sandbar that stretches out on the Arkansas side, the river taking a big loop west, having bounced off the bluffs. We came home that day and in the mail were his two copies of The Cities (An Evergreen Original from Grove Press and only costing $2.95!). He gave me one of the two copies. I was honored.
Below is the Author's Note to The Cities. Paul didn't like to write about poetics or the acting of writing but when he did do it it was always incredibly thoughtful and imaginative and, yes, musical. And below that I'm including "A Short, Colorful Riot Poem for Lee Merrill Byrd" which Paul wrote sitting on a bench at the table in that same room where the picture was taken. He was looking around and writing in his thick notebook.
▲▲▲▲Well, here it is. And it turns out to be cities, or, I've held it to that. The Cities. Every man's stand be his own. Finally, it is a construct, out of my own isolations, eyes, ears, nose, and breath, my recognitions of those constructs not my own that I can live in. The Cities.
Of the poems, let me use Lorca's tern: duende is that faculty of making/ into which you subsume yourself, your nickel, your dime, your cruzeiro, your peso, your five-dollar gold piece, your talent, silver mark, or denier, a goddamn ha'penny, if that's all you're carrying around in your pocket that day, you lay it on the line, it's payment, to whatever devil or demon wishes (with that idea or feeling IT feels itself itself, it's owner, if you like) to take possession of the THING in you, giving that quality to the process. The secret of this book is
scissors, rock, and paper.
A SHORT, COLORFUL, RIOT POEM FOR LEE MERRILL BYRD
Bottles are blue, green
Glass is green .
The West tastes like the North
The South tastes like blood and shit
and magnolia .
I think I can stand it
It is the strength in the arms
if you lift it
Europe even worse than the States
the price of Kleenex, boucliersand tear gas
paving stores and fire
the same clubs
Cream no longer rises to the top, the
perfection of the centrifuge .
A brown unglazed jar.
The flowers are white
with centers green and yella
how you, fella . the stone
and broken fingernails, it
is the strength you feel
back and arms
when you lift it, mes coopains
IF you lift it .