Stuart Z. Perkoff
By John Macker
“The Poet is the world’s remembrancer.”
“He told of taking acid in situations that would terrify me, for instance, a jail cell in Terminal Island.”
-Robert Creeley, on Stuart, from his foreword to Voices Of The Lady: Collected Poems, Stuart Z. Perkoff
Stuart Z. Perkoff was the Southern California Beat Generation’s tortured over soul who gave that movement a lot of its spirit, its sense of place and its relevance. By the end of his life, Stuart would manifest everything that was righteous, precociously outlaw and sui generis about Venice before the bad press and the cops cracked down on the bikers and drug dealers. He was friend and mentor to a generation of wild, original bohemian wordslingers who were (mostly) accepted into the larger extended family of the Beat Generation, in the 1950’s.
Early on, Stuart was befriended by the L.A. intellectual cum hipster/novelist Lawrence Lipton, who hosted “salons” that attracted the hip, the disenfranchised, the poets and painters, the poseurs, the dilettantes. Poets like David Meltzer, Tony Scibella, John Thomas, Philomene Long, Bruce Boyd, Robert Alexander, Alexander Trocchi, Stuart, and others sought out kindred spirits within Lipton’s ever-evolving sphere. (Jack Kerouac had even showed up at one point, with Steve Allen, all surly and swollen and drunk to his core). The Holy Barbarians, Lipton’s best-selling account of this era and its characters was published in 1959 and is now highly collectible in hardcover.
Stuart appeared as a successful contestant on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life. He also realized the poet’s vulnerability in the media eye once national word got out about Venice’s role as a harbor for the beatniks’ dark side. The poets and artists of Venice West were suddenly catapulted into the spotlight for most of the wrong reasons, and, subsequently, became objects of ridicule and satire in the press. He disdained such displays and in Jack Hirschman’s generous words, “preferred anonymous best of all.”
Despite all this he and Lipton were the subjects of John Arthur Maynard’s respectful biography Venice West: The Beat Generation in Southern California. (Rutgers Univ. Press, 1991.) Much of Stuart’s close friend Tony Scibella’s contribution to that book was through an interview I did with him in Denver, in 1986 and originally published in the magazine, Moravagine.3.
Stuart appeared along with the best poets America had to offer in Donald Allen’s historic anthology, The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. In its scope, originality and audacity it has yet to be rivaled. Although many of the poets included were Stuart’s good friends, he ended up changing the lives of his closest poet-companions, the painter/collagist Tony Scibella, New York gangster-with-portfolio Frank T. Rios and poet/publisher James Ryan Morris.
His rogue books appeared in mostly soft cover, small press editions lovingly produced by publisher friends. He spent some time in prison for drug offenses in the late 60’s-early 70’s which he never really recovered from and which truncated his publishing “career”. Kowboy Pomes, Eat The Earth, Alphabet, Only Just Above The Ground, some of his best writing- after he had morphed into a great, grey-bearded long-haired bear of a poet- came out in the short span between prison release and his untimely death from cancer at 43 in 1974. Jonathan Williams had published Perkoff’s seminal and haunting, The Suicide Room, in 1956.
In the mid 90’s, Stuart’s older brother Gerald approached Tony Scibella and others about collecting Stuart’s work into one volume. Later, Gerald contacted Allen Ginsberg about publication of this manuscript and Allen led him to Maine’s National Poetry Foundation, partially funded by Stephen King. In 1998, Voices Of The Lady: Collected Poems appeared with an honorable and insightful introduction by Robert Creeley. It covers all of Stuart’s published and unpublished works. A substantial tome by any standards and an outlaw masterpiece by a true rebel –Jewish mystic, ex-con, wordslinging junkie genius whose influence is still being felt.
For 20 years now, I’ve considered Stuart a kind of guardian angel riding point for me into America’s voodoo bone darkness- I still on occasion sit my wife down by candlelight with two shots of Herradura, and read some of Stuart’s words out loud. They can still send chills up my spine just like they did when the late Denver poet Larry Lake first handed me a copy of Visions For TheTribe. I couldn’t seek the muse’s touch without encountering Stuart Perkoff’s shadow on the trail. The man’s language, its musicality, its exhortative cadence & jazz rhythms, the bare-boned tragedy of his life sometimes bear down on me like the summer night sweat dripping from a sky full of stars.
Some of his poems/lines continue to unspool in my mind, fearless, luminescent mini-movies, here and there, across open ground, throughout the universe: from Kowboy Pomes:
FOUR: PEYOTE POEM
no wonder those bones
white dry in the
a aaaaaaaalie there
they get to.
SEVEN: THE BUFFALO
Indian hunters, after prayer
& dance hid within
sacred skins. to see thru his eyes, crawl
to the core of his world
nurse the young? what of those
returned, moving over the rich
weight & balance the limits
From Love Is The Silence:
LETTER TO JACK HIRSCHMAN
jack, let’s talk
the streets.OK? where
what do we want from them? not
more blood, no graduate courses
in human capabilities. dachau
was the streets. how many more
such roads must we travel?
let’s insist on vision
i will accept nothing less than miracles
all men are unhappy
& everyone dies. a street
perhaps it is a matter
aaaaaaaaaaathe sage says: man
is the language of
god. What creature or monster
forms our world
in its mouth?
where we walk
we know the dangers. if
the choice is between the streets
there is no choice
maybe we shd be talking
abt “joy”. Is that what you mean
by “streets” jack?
“Like it or not, being alive finds its own way to live of necessity.” -Robert Creeley
Friends, lovers, muse, children, countrymen, peers, Meltzer, Tristan Tzara, Gary Cooper, Charles Mingus, John Garfield, John Thomas, Thelonious Monk, Kirby Doyle, Dylan Thomas, Abbot Kinney (founder of Venice, CA.), Philomene Long, Ben Talbert, Stuart wrote poems to them all, in all shapes and sizes: hip theatrical dialogue, short prose, spontaneous short line, invocation, many without titles, just Stuart riffing to the earth and sky, praying the poem gets riffed back to him by the gulls, the waves of his beloved “moonwash sea”, echoing off the voices of brother poets, guided by the sound emanating from the Lady’s lips. Stuart’s muse was external, an out of body experience, the “Lady” of his life, cosmic goddess she-fire chanted down to earth and into his soul by the uncharted intensity of his poetics.
As Tony Scibella has said, as close as the Venice 3 were, none of them sounded like the other and Stuart didn’t sound like anybody. His readings were legendary for his basso profundo voice and intonation, very formal, rabbinical even.
i went to hear kirby doyle read
it was at ucla a maze of glass mountains
jack hirschman showed me a book of Hebrew letters
kabbalah! poems! madness!
this was years ago
not long after that I went to prison
a desert of concrete & steel sterility
the I ching told me to perservere
& I thot of the Hebrew book
& the doyle poems abt
dope! motorcycles! john garfield! love!
that, too, now, is in
in the present I am surrounded by books
heading towards the future (the past)
instantaneously NOW becomes
it is still the present
all in the past
as everything is
or will be.
As far back as 1951, Charles Olson, on the occasion of Stuart’s poems being published in Cid Corman’s Origin 2, recognized his impact:
“i have just been telling creeley how very moved i was last night to find you there (origin 2) with us That those two poems of yrs belong with us; and are something neither of us, or anyone else, can visit as you can such another hell . . .”
Stuart’s “another hell” was on earth, within his family, in the derangement of his senses by heroin and other drugs, the expectations of a soul- destroying, “responsible” society spawned by victory over Japan and Germany, and a cold war that had addicted itself to world arms escalation and the grim potentiality of nuclear annihilation. Stuart recognized the shadow of fear but refused to reside within it. Death was always available, everyday, another shadow, kin. But he wrote the Hell out of it, the sweating threat of it, everyday, his health and blood on the line, one word ahead of another, in the Lady’s light.
On his deathbed, he was attended by two Ladies, his muse, ever hovering, feeding him lines until the end and one of flesh, his last love, the poet, convent renegade and self-proclaimed “queen of bohemia”, Philomene Long who captured, on tape, his final words. For the rest of us there is the last poem in Voices Of The Lady, another untitled, handwritten, taken off Stuart’s wall shortly before his death:
So black, the visions. That’s why they
linked gaunted arms & stumbled towards
the flames in a feeble dance of celeb-
rations. For the visions cannot be
denied, reality is irrevocable &
so, precisely there they found joy
aaaaaaaaGrant me that strength
he who must remain
Reads at Acequia Booksellers in Albuquerque, NM January 2008
John Macker’s most recent book is “Adventures In The Gun Trade” (Denver: Long Road/La Cantera Press, 2004) and he has completed a cd called black/wing with John Knoll. He lives with wife, Annie, a few miles south of Las Vegas, NM with some cool views of the llano. Recent poetry published in magaziness & anthologies including Manzanita Quarterly, Sin Fronteras/Writers Without Borders, mad blood #’s 1 & 2, Pinyon Poetry (Mesa State College.), & Poets For Peace, cd, (Santa Fe.) He won 2006 mad blood magazine literary arts award for poem, “Wyoming Arcane.” Also nominated for 2006 Pushcart Prize. (Oct ’05, October 07)
Poet, “in the middle of life”, editor/publisher/bookseller, renegade wordslinger, desert defender. Author of several books of poetry including Adventures In The Gun Trade, (2004) Burroughs At Santo Domingo (1998) and Wyoming Arcane (mad blood #5, 2006) Another book is Woman of the Disturbed Earth, Longmont, CO:Turkey Buzzard Press, 2008. “to keep the highways clean and bother no being.”–Lew Welch.
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listen to John Macker | for Robert Creeley | a VOX Audio CD, edited by Bruce Holsapple
lives in Northern New Mexico with his wife in an old roadhouse on the Santa Fe Trail. Books and broadsides of poetry include For The Few, The First Gangster, Burroughs At Santo Domingo, 2 +2=1, among others. In 2001, won the James Ryan Morris Memorial “Tombstone” Award for poetry. Has given public readings with writers such as S.A. Griffin, Frank Rios, Tony Scibella, Gregory Corso, Andy Clausen, Ed Dorn, Linda Hogan among others. Has had essays and poems published in journals and magazines throughout the U.S. including, most recently, Manzanita Quarterly, Sin Fronteras (Writers Without Borders), Pitchfork, Black Ace Book 7, Mercury Reader, A People’s Ecology: Explorations In Sustainable Living and a large section from a new manuscript Adventures In The Gun Trade (considered to be a seminal Outlaw text), was featured in Mad Blood #2, October 2003. In Colorado, in the early-mid 90’s edited the award-winning literary arts journal, Harp, which featured interviews and poetry by Robert Bly, Gregory Corso, Charles Bukowski,Tony Scibella, Diane DiPrima and many others. Has two dogs and when time permits, listens to the wind.
John Macker’s most recent book of poetry is Las Montanas de Santa Fe with woodcuts by Colorado artist Leon Loughridge. He is also the author of Woman of the Disturbed Earth, (Turkey Buzzard Press, 2007), among others. He has recorded 2 spoken word cd’s: black/wing w/John Knoll and Reading at Acequia Booksellers. He is the editor of Desert Shovel Review and was co-editor (with S.A. Griffin and Marsha Getzler) of Black Ace Book 8, a tribute to the late L.A. poet Tony Scibella. His work is currently included in Mile High Underground, an exhibit of art & literature at the Evans/Byers Mansion, Denver, Colorado, sponsored by the Colorado Historical Society.