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1972 was a great time to be a poet. A new generation of poets was just beginning to emerge. There were Patti Smith and Richard Meyers, later Hell; and his friend Tom Miller, later Verlaine; among many others like Lou Reed. At the same time, rock writing was coming of age. Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Nick Kent, and Nick Tosches were writing with the passion and talent of poets. Meanwhile other punk poets like Joey and Dee Dee Ramone, Debbie Harry, and David Byrne were writing poems that would become songs. These cutting edge writers would find a home of sorts at the St. Mark's Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery on the corner of Second Avenue and 10th street.
The poetry scene in New York at this time was the first nurturing counterculture group I became involved with. I was running an underground poetry press called Telegraph Books in collaboration with another punk poet, Andrew Wylie, and the king of minimalism, Aram Saroyan, who had made a big splash in 1968 when Random House published his self-titled collection. It was so minimal that the entire book was read on the six o'clock news in one and a half minutes. We were in the process of publishing Patti Smith's first book, Seventh Heaven, and nine other titles, including Warhol superstar Brigid Polk's Scars, two books by Saroyan and Wylie, Gerard Malanga's Poetry on Film, Tom Weatherly's Thumbprint, and Back in Boston Again, a classic New York School collaboration from Ted Berrigan, Tom Clark, and Ron Padgett. It was about a weekend the three spent at Saroyan's apartment before he and Berrigan went to interview Jack Kerouac for the Paris Review.
The best thing about the St. Mark's Project, and the entire poetry world of this era, was that it was international and, unlike other movements like the Beat Generation and Pop Art, it did not have the impulse to kill the fathers to make way for the sons. Rather the community celebrated its fathers and incorporated them into the new scene. One of the most important of these predecessors was Ezra Pound, who died in November 1972. Pound had been the most creative and collaborative figure in poetry since the First World War. The influence of his work, ranging from the ABC of Reading to The Cantos, was felt strongly in Donald Allen's famous Grove Press anthology, New American Poetry 1945–1960. The anthology contained three generations of poets, with stars like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso from the Beats, Robert Creeley and John Wieners of the Black Mountain School, and Frank O'Hara from the New York School, whose second generation ran St. Marks and enthusiastically welcomed the new up-and-coming poets. Patti Smith gave her first reading there in '71.
As a sign of things to come, in January I had taken Telegraph authors Malanga, Smith, and Wylie to London where we gave a reading at London's poetry central, publisher John Calder's Better Books. We all gave sensational readings, but Patti captured the night when she did a spontaneous performance, the first ever, of what would become the song "Piss Factory." In the bar following the reading the organizer told me with apparent glee that we had changed the London poetry scene over night. I have no idea if that was true, but this kind of openness was the hallmark of that poetry world, which was very much an expression of the counterculture.
But in the United States in the years leading up to 1972, that same culture was in flux and disarray. After the watershed year of 1968, when the whole world watched the Chicago police beat up peaceful demonstrators at the Democratic Convention, and the arch-conservative Richard Nixon won the presidency, American counterculture came under the brutal attack of his corrupt and criminal administration. Between '68 and '72 our leaders had been shot, jailed, and, if not driven out of the country, smeared by the FBI or attacked by the IRS. While we were reeling from these shock tactics, squabbles broke out between factions of the Hippies and Yippies. Thus the politically based movement of the 1960s began to rapidly crumble. Meanwhile the break up of the Beatles, the withdrawal of Bob Dylan, and the wavering of other sixties super groups blurred the effect rock music had had on the social and sexual revolution. This left an empty space in our hearts and minds.
1972 proved to be both the nadir of this crisis and the launching point for a new movement. At this juncture, punk poets and writers began to create a new consciousness. It would flower throughout the 1970s into a completely unexpected series of developments. For those of us who saw the counterculture as a vehicle to subverting the whole rotten structure of the West, the seventies would become a far more powerful decade than the sixties. In reality our ultimate aim was to replace the (hilariously titled) "nuclear family," with a new way to live in the Magic Universe of the arts.
Of course, without Nixon's Waterloo at Watergate much of the second half of this creative decade would not have happened, or it would have happened in a very different way. But thanks to his hubris, Richard Nixon was forced to resign from the presidency in 1974.
The manner in which the counterculture responded to this second chance at turning the country into a more humane environment was quite astonishing. That same year the King of the Beats, William Burroughs, returned to New York from Europe like some exiled king in Shakespeare to seize his rightful throne. Muhammad Ali, who had repeatedly been written off as finished by ancient scribes infuriated by his refusal to be drafted, won back his crown as the people's Heavyweight Champion of the World; Allen Ginsberg won the National Book Award; Andy Warhol finally moved out of the Factory, in which he had almost been assassinated in '68; and High Times became the most successful new national magazine. Meanwhile punk rock was just beginning to be heard on the Lower East Side. The gay population, which had been gathering its forces under the banner of the Gay Liberation Movement, broke into the mainstream as the single most powerful new group in the city. And, although not immediately detectable, a whole new generation of women emboldened by the impact of Women's Liberation found themselves making career strides that were previously unthinkable and became much more confident and empowered in all aspects of their lives. The sum of these last three developments created a whole new sexual dynamic in New York that would play perhaps the strongest underlying role in the rapid development of a cultural movement that would emerge in 1978 as the age of the Beat-Punk Generation.
I have often been asked what the subjects of my books have in common and invariably reply, they were all great talkers. This book celebrates the best of those great talkers. Its theme is the relationship between the Beat Generation and the Punk Rock movement.
The Punks, led by Patti Smith and Richard Hell, adored the Beats and the Beats in turn were grateful to the Punks for drawing fresh, renewed attention to their work. The relationship between the two groups was from the start symbiotic, full of fun and, as Allen Ginsberg once said to me walking down the street with Peter Orlovsky late one night after dinner with Isherwood and Burroughs on his way to CBGB, ‘chic’.
This collection of twenty-four pieces represents my favorite and most enduring journalism. It includes as well the best voices of their times from Muhammad Ali through Warhol and Burroughs, Southern, Roeg and Richards, to Hell, Harry and Ramone. Reading it now I can smell and taste the aromas of New York City when it was not only the cultural capitol of the world but the maddest, baddest and most fun place to be. I hope it makes you laugh.
Rosebud Feliu-Pettet, who knew Allen through four decades, was among the twenty people with him when he died; her distinction here is that she was the only one who witnessed in their entirety these final minutes of a great life.
When Ted Berrigan, who published one of Burroughs’ scrapbooks (Time, C Press 1965), took copies of the book to Burroughs in his suite in the Chelsea, he also took a plastic machine gun because he couldn’t afford to pay any royalties. ‘You looked through the sights of the gun and saw images. “It’s an image machine gun,” I told him,’ Berrigan remembers. ‘But he didn’t seem impressed, and I got out of there pretty quickly.’
From ‘Information about the Operation’
by Victor Bockris
In Australia, you ask about sharks and they glance into their tea: “No mate, no. No worries mate. They only come in January when the water’s warm see, otherwise it’s perfectly safe to swim, mate.”
Excerpt from a news bulletin released March 4 1977: “Next thing I felt it go under our feet again and I said, ‘For God’s sake Vic, pull your feet up – I think it’s a ray or a shark!’ I kicked at it, I punched it – it had no effect. I tried to hold Vic with me as he was pulled off the edge of the box. Vic just said: ‘It’s got me again. Goodbye mates, this is it’.”
From ‘People of the Dream Time’ by “Vic” Bockris. Traveller’s Digest, 1977.
The Patti Smith Interview
This interview was conducted in the loft Patti Smith shared with Robert Mapplethorpe just down the street from the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd street in Manhattan. Mapplethorpe's art, though sparse, was prominent on the walls. It was early August 1972. Patti had seen the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden a week earlier. My press, Telegraph Books, had published her first book of poems, Seventh Heaven, earlier that year. I had just returned from an extensive visit to England. Patti's pretty little sister, Linda, was also present. The interview is significant because this was the first occasion on which I realized I had some talent as an interviewer. And I imagine Patti must have realized she was an outstanding interviewee. It was published that September in one hundred copies by Jeff Goldberg by his Philadelphia based Red Room Books series.
VICTOR BOCKRIS: Would you consider yourself to be the greatest poet in New York City?
PATTI SMITH: Um, the greatest poet in New York City? Um, Shit. I can't think of what to say. I don't think I'm a great poet at all. I don't even think I'm a good poet. I just think I write neat stuff.
BOCKRIS: Why does it sell well?
SMITH: 'Cause I sell. 'Cause you know I got a good personality and people really like me. When people buy my book you know they're really buying a piece of Patti Smith. That book is autobiographical. It sheds the light of my heroes on it. No good poet thinks they're good. Blaise Cendrars said he was a bad poet.
BOCKRIS: How does it work in relation to people who don't know you? People in Omaha?
SMITH: Because I think I'm a good writer. I'm a good writer in the same way Mickey Spillane or Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain is a good writer. There's a lot of American rhythms. I mean I can seduce people. I got good punchlines, you know. I got all the stuff that Americans like. Some of it's dirt. There's a lot of good jokes. I mean I write to entertain. I write to make people laugh. I write to give a double take. I write to seduce a chick. I wrote "Girl Trouble" about Anita Pallenberg. Anita Pallenberg would read it and think twice and maybe she'd invite me over to the south of France and have a little nookie or something. Everything I write has a motive behind it. I write to have somebody. I write the same way I perform. I mean you only perform because you want people to fall in love with you. You want them to react to you.
BOCKRIS: John Wieners said to me yesterday that he figured he'd only just become a poet. He's thirty-eight and he figured this latest book of his [Selected Poems] was his first book. And it took him seventeen years to get there. What do you feel about that?
SMITH: The other day I reread my book and figured I had written my last book. I don't think that has anything to do with anything. Rimbaud wrote his last book when he was twenty-two and sometimes I figure I did my best work as an artist from post-adolescent energy.
BOCKRIS: Do you think you're a genius?
SMITH: I'm not very intelligent.
BOCKRIS: But genius is something else. So you agree, right?
SMITH: Yeah, yeah. It's like when I was a little kid I always knew that I had some special kind of thing inside me. I mean I wasn't very attractive. I wasn't very verbal. I wasn't very smart in school. I wasn't anything that showed physically to the world that I was something special but I had this tremendous hope all the time, you know, I had this tremendous spirit that kept me going no matter how fucked up I was. Just had this kind of light inside me that kept spurring me on.
BOCKRIS: Why don't you take us back there to New Jersey in those days when you were a teenager beginning the great trail out? I mean, tell us when you first started to write and everything. How it happened.
SMITH: Well, I always wrote. After I was seven when I read Little Women I wanted to be like Louisa May Alcott. The whole thing to me was in Little Women. Jo was the big move. It seems silly but Jo in Little Women with all those fairy tales and plays introduced me to the writer as performer. She would write those plays and perform them and get her sisters laughing even in the face of death so I wanted to be a chick like her, you know, who wrote and performed what I wrote and so I used to write these dumb little plays and then I wrote these banal little short stories but I wasn't good. I showed no promise and then when I went to high school I used to write these really dramatic poems just like any other kid writes. About everything I didn't know about. I was a virgin. I had never faced death. I had never faced war and pestilence and of course I read about sex, pestilence, disease, malaria, I read about everything but I never …
BOCKRIS: What year is this?
SMITH: '62–'63. Then in '64 you know I started really getting involved in the lives of people. You know, it was like around '63–'64 I got seduced by people's lifestyles, like Modigliani, Soutine, Rimbaud.
BOCKRIS: How did you get in touch with Rimbaud?
SMITH: Well, I was working in a factory and I was inspecting baby-buggy bumper beepers and it was my lunch break and there was this genius sausage sandwich that the guy in the little cart would bring and I really wanted one. They were like $1.45 but the thing is the guy only brought two a day and the two ladies who ruled the factory, named Stella Dragon and Dotty Hook, took these sausage sandwiches. They were really wrecks, they had no teeth and everything.
So there was nothing else I wanted. You get obsessed with certain tastes. My mouth was really dying for this hot sausage sandwich so I was real depressed. I went across the railroad tracks to this little bookstore. I was roaming around there and I was looking for something to read and I saw Illuminations, you know, the cheap paperback of Illuminations. I mean, every kid had it. Rimbaud looks so genius. There's that grainy picture of Rimbaud and I thought he was so neat looking and I instantly snatched it up and I didn't even know what it was about, I just thought Rimbaud was a neat name. I probably called him Rimbald and I thought he was so cool. So I went back to the factory. And I was reading it. It was in French on one side and English on the other and this almost cost me my job 'cause Dotty Hook saw that I was reading something that had foreign language and she said, "What are you reading that foreign stuff for?" and I said "It's not foreign," and she said, "It's foreign—it's communist—anything foreign is communist." So then she said it so loud hat everybody thought I was reading The Communist Manifesto or something and they all ran up and, of course, complete chaos, and I just left the factory in a big huff and I went home. So of course I attached a lot of importance to that book before I had even read it and I just really fell in love with it. It was gracious son of Pan that I fell in love with it 'cause it was so sexy.
BOCKRIS: At what point in this stage did you figure out and begin to understand what you were doing?
SMITH: Not until a few months ago.
BOCKRIS: Why then?
SMITH: Well, see, what happened is I didn't really fall in love with writing as writing. I fell in love with writers' lifestyles: Rimbaud's lifestyle—I was in love with Rimbaud for being a mad angel and all that shit. And then I became friends with Janet [Hamill] and she was a writer, there was all these writers in New Jersey. There was just like this little scene. I was secretly writing. I was doing a lot of art. People knew me as an artist and so, like, I was secretly ashamed of my writing because all my best friends were great writers. So I didn't have no confidence in myself. I used to write stuff mostly about girls getting rid of their virginity and I used to write like Lorca. I wrote this one thing about this brother raping his cold sister under the white moon. It was called, "The Almond Tree." While his father raped the young stepmother and she died and he was … He looked at her cadaver and he said, "You are cold in death even colder to me than you were in life."
BOCKRIS: What do you find are the major problems you have as a writer at this point?
SMITH: When I was a kid? Well, I had no understanding of language. I was so romantic and I thought all you had to do is expel the romance. I had no idea the romance of language was a whole thing in itself. I had no idea of what to do with language. I mean, all I had was I used to record my dreams. I had no conception of style of words.
BOCKRIS: Tell me how Seventh Heaven got put together. It's a 48-page book. That's a lot of work.
SMITH: Right before I met Telegraph Books I started in the last two years reorganizing my style. I started feeling confidence in my writing. I just realized what language was. You know, I started seeing language as magic. Two things happened that really liberated me. The major thing was reading Mickey Spillane. Because I wanted to move out of … I was starting to get successful in writing these long almost rock and roll poems. And I liked to perform them but I suddenly realized that though they were great performed, they weren't such hot shit written down. I'm not saying I didn't stand behind them, but there's a certain kind of poetry that's performance poetry. It's like the American Indians weren't writing conscious poetry, they were making chants. They were making ritual language and the language of ritual is the language of the moment. But as far as being frozen on a piece of paper is concerned, they weren't inspiring. You can do anything when you perform, you can say anything you want as long as you're a great performer, you know you can repeat a word over and over and over as long as you're a fantastic performer. You know you never understand what Mick Jagger is saying except "Let it Boogie" or "Jumping Jack Flash" but it's always so powerful 'cause he's such a fantastic performer.
BOCKRIS: Well how do you deal with that problem? That's a central problem in your work. Tony Glover says in his review of Seventh Heaven. He talks about the poetry of performance. I feel that's a central thing we're dealing with at the moment. How to get it down so you can have a book that people can read, but that you can also perform.
SMITH: That book to me represents me on the tightrope between writing and performing. I was writing stuff like "Mary Jane" or the Joan of Arc stuff, which is total performance poetry but, you know, I think they were worthy of being printed because their content is important. The Joan of Arc poem is almost total rhythm masturbation but it puts Joan of Arc in a new light, it puts her forth as a virgin with a hot pussy who realizes that she's gonna get knocked off before she gets a chance to come. So there is a concept there that made the rhythm worth of being frozen. But like I said, I was reading Mickey Spillane. I couldn't get into prose 'cause I don't talk that well. I'm not good in grammar. I can't spell. I have lousy sentence structure. I don't know how to use commas so I just get very intimidated when I write something that isn't completely vertical. So I started reading Mickey Spillane, you know, and Mike Hammer, his hammer language: I ran, I ran fast down the alley. And back again. I mean he wrote like that. Three-word sentences and they're like a chill and they're real effective and I got real seduced by his speed and at the same time I started reading Céline 'cause it's just too intellectual but the idea that he could freeze one word and put a period. He dared put one word—yellow—and follow it by forty other words like forty movements, also like some kind of concerto or something. He's not as seducing to me as Mickey Spillane but I juggled the two.
And then the third thing: I was reading Michaux. He's so funny. He wrote this thing called The Adventure of Phene and it's about this guy who's totally paranoid. He's so paranoid he goes to Rome and wants to see the Coliseum and the travel guide says, "Oh, I'm so sorry. Well, could I at least have a postcard?" and he says, "Don't be ridiculous." And he says, "Oh, I never really meant to have a postcard. I don't even know why I came to this country." And he leaves.
So I mean I got three things. I got speed, humor, the holiness of the single word. So I just mixed them all up.
BOCKRIS: Mostly European influences, Rimbaud, Cendrars, Céline, Michaux.
SMITH: Well, it used to be totally European. I had no interest in American writing at all.
SMITH: It's because of biographies. I was mostly attracted to lifestyles and there just were not any great biographies of genius American lifestyles except the cowboys. And I'm a girl and I was interested in the feminineness of men.
BOCKRIS: What you're trying to do in your writing is create a lifestyle. Seventh Heaven is a lifestyle.
SMITH: If I didn't think so much of myself I'd think I was a name-dropper, but there's a difference. You can read my book and who do you get out of it? Edie Sedgwick, Marianne Faithfull, Joan of Arc, Frank Sinatra … all people I really like. But I'm not doing it to drop names. I'm doing it to say this is another piece of who I am. You know, I am an American. It's ironic I should be so involved with the French because I'm absolutely an American. I'm shrouded in the lives of my heroes.
BOCKRIS: Would you find anybody in America now who you think influences you a lot?
SMITH: It's mostly dead people.
BOCKRIS: Anybody alive?
SMITH: Dylan. You can't reject Dylan. But Dylan seduced me when he had a fantastic lifestyle. I'll always love Dylan all my life but Dylan was a big thing to me when he was BOB DYLAN. Now he's whatever he is but when he was there and had America in the grip of his fist, then I got so excited about him. As far as anybody living.
BOCKRIS: I find the position of a writer is a fairly isolated one. It's fairly lonely task. Do you find that?
SMITH: No, 'cause I don't have the balls to say I'm a writer. I don't think I'm good enough. See, I love my works. I think I've written some really good things. I think "Judith" is just as good as anything ever written, but I couldn't sit down and do it all the time. Oh, Sam Shepard. I admire him.
BOCKRIS: Do you find you learn from him?
SMITH: Sure, I learn from Sam because Sam is one of the most magic people I've ever met. Sam is really the most true American man I've ever met in as far as he's also hero-oriented. He has a completely western romance mind. He loves gangsters, he loves cowboys, he's totally physical. He loves bigness. You know Americans love bigness. In his plays there's always a huge Cadillac or a huge breast or a huge monster. His whole life moves on rhythms. He's a drummer. I mean, everything about Sam is so beautiful and has to do with rhythm. That's why Sam and I successfully collaborated because he didn't know that he was … intuitively he worked with the rhythm. I do it conceptually. I work with being a thematic writer. He just does it because he's got rhythm in his blood. I do it intellectually. He does it from the heart. And so we were able to establish a really deep communion that way.
BOCKRIS: You're not working with him at the moment, are you?
BOCKRIS: You don't associate with many writers?
SMITH: Well, my best friends are writers. I never collaborate.
BOCKRIS: I wasn't thinking so much of collaborations. People I feel more comfortable with tend to be writers nowadays because they tend to recognize me and I tend to recognize them.
SMITH: No, I don't think I have the modern writer's lifestyle.
BOCKRIS: You don't take yourself seriously?
SMITH: Ultimately, I don't take anything serious and I can take everything seriously. I'm too much of a cynic to take anything serious. If I'm in a good, pure, relaxed state I can look at certain of my works and like them. But most of the time I look at my stuff and say, Ah, this is a load of shit. Mick Jagger listens to his albums and says they're shit. Bob Dylan listens to his albums and says they're shit. It hurts me to read an interview where Bob Dylan says he hates Nashville Skyline. But I know how I feel. The best work to me is the work in progress. Which I why I produce … I almost hate to see my work go out. I'm more guilty of not being published than any publisher because I'm always in progress. I didn't like to finish my drawings. Yeats was like that. How many versions of "Leda and the Swan" did he do? It's so difficult 'cause it means it's dead. De Kooning did twenty-eight dead women under Women I because you know he couldn't stand to say that she was done. It's like you know when a woman has a baby, she created it. It's just begun. But when an artist does a piece of work, as soon as he does the last brushstroke or the last period, it's finished.
BOCKRIS: How did you feel when Seventh Heaven came out?
SMITH: I carried it around with me for weeks.
BOCKRIS: Did it catalyze anything in your head about writing?
SMITH: I stopped writing for a while. I was like a kid at first. I didn't understand it. I saw it. It was in front of me. I liked to carry it on buses and hope people would recognize it was me on the cover. I stopped seeing the poetry as soon as it was printed. I'll stand behind that book, I think it's a damn good book, but the only two poems I like the best are the two last ones which are the most recent ones. I think 'Judith' is the best thing I ever write.
BOCKRIS: Would you say anything about the difference between being a man and a woman in relation to writing?
SMITH: I don't feel it that much.
BOCKRIS: You write about it a lot.
SMITH: Being a writer?
- On Sale
- Nov 30, 2000
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Da Capo Press