INTERVIEW OF B. L. KENNEDY BY CRAWDAD NELSON, AUGUST 13, 2003, MIDTOWN SACRAMENTO (transcribed by EPG; photos copyright Crawdad Nelson)
CN: Now tell me how you ended up in California in Sacramento of all places from the Bronx.
BLK: Wow. Ending up in Sacramento from all places, especially from the Bronx. Well, you see I would take trips every year. I had this great thing going at work. I worked in the stock market at the time as a "runner" all winter in New York City, then come springtime I'd take a trip. And in 1976, they had this great deal with Greyhound and it was called AmeriPass, and it was to celebrate the Bicentennial and all that stuff. And for a certain price, I think it was $199 plus tax. You were able to get on and off the bus as many times as you wanted for an entire month. Right? And so I got myself an AmeriPass. And I figured it would be cool, you know I mean I had just had this friend named Philip Dietrich, whose heart was broken because he fell in love with this woman named Debbie Lugo who was from Sacramento, California. And they fell in love after they stole their first car. Debbie was friends with a woman named Jody who, because I don't remember her last name anymore, I'll just go by her nickname which was J. D. Bond; and Debbie eventually had to go back to Sacramento. Philip was brokenhearted. He was no longer any fun. So I went and I raised some money, I sold some stuff, got Philip a one-way ticket to Sacramento. And I sent him out to Sacramento, California. Also because Debbie had a small brother (I'm pretty sure his name was Danny) who was into comic books and I had to impress him very very much, secure Philip's position as a stranger in town, at that time these graphic books came out, "The Origins of Marvel Comics," and "The Sons of Marvel Comics," so I went to the offices of Marvel Comics in Manhattan and I had all those guys like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby sign them. So that would impress anybody. And sent those two books and Philip's sorrowful ass off to Sacramento, California. I didn't even know what the fuck Sacramento, California was. If somebody told me that Sacramento, California was the State capital of California, I would have laughed in their face; because I figured the State capital of California, come on, I mean it had to be San Francisco or L.A. It had to be someplace where there was culture, where there was people, you know, I mean, the song says, "Open up your golden gates." Naturally, that would have to be the capital of California. I mean, you know, so, anyway Philip was gone. And I was getting ready to do my trip, and J. D. Bond was getting really depressed. She no longer had Debbie around, and she wanted to go with me because she knew I was gonna go stop off and see Philip in Sacramento, California. My immediate plan was to leave New York, and I was gonna take the southern route, and I was gonna stop in Hollywood, Florida to see Moe who's a friend of mine, ex-junkie, and then I was gonna hit New Orleans and I was gonna stay in New Orleans for a while. And then I was gonna go into Texas and I was gonna first see the Alamo and then I was gonna go down to Austin, Texas. And I was gonna hang out in Austin, Texas for a while, and then I was gonna go into Arizona, by Tempe, Arizona, to um, what is it, um, uh Palo, oh God what's the name of the place now? Arco Santi, and it was supposed to be a solar city that a whole bunch of cats were building, and it was done by this crazed architect, I mean it was burned down. It was somewhere between Tempe and Phoenix, Arizona. And I mean the whole thing was supposed to be a solar city. And then I was gonna cut up from Arizona through California, stop around the L.A. area, and explore that for a while. I always wanted to stop in the L.A. area and explore that and get over this fear I have of earthquakes. You know because I figured that I knew they had earthquakes in Northern California because I saw the movie, "San Francisco." And I knew that earthquakes, that, that the ground opens up like that and people fall into the holes but you never see them coming back out. So I knew something was up. So I wanted to go to Southern California because I also saw the movie, "Earthquake," with Charlton Heston and if Moses can survive an earthquake, I know I can because I was legitimately Jewish [laughter].
That was my plan, and I was gonna work my way up to Sacramento, visit Philip for a while, then go up to San Francisco because my friend Dyson said I could still meet people like the Grateful Dead and all that stuff hanging out there in the streets and everything. Whether that was a myth or not, I don't know, but what the fuck, you know, I can find out, right? I knew there was poetry there, so I knew I could at least read poetry. Because my other other plan was to read poetry in all of these places as I was going along, and write poetry as I was going along. I wanted to do this whole roadtrip type thing. But J. D. Bond was becoming a pain in the ass. And she wanted to go. And her father was this great fucking down and dirty Jewish boogie piano player, and her mother and father had cash, so they somehow convinced me in taking her and they made me promise that I would take care of her and all that stuff. So they got her AmeriPass. I made sure she had the proper equipment because I told her we were going to be camping and everything at some points, and all that stuff. And I had all this camping equipment at the time and everything, and so we had a big going away party over at my apartment on St. Mark's Place and 2nd Avenue, 223 2nd Avenue I think, in the Village. Then we went up to Times Square where it was so, so, so much fun because there was J.D.'s parents, they were hugging her, "Oh, we're gonna miss our baby, we're gonna miss our baby." Meanwhile, on the other side of the window there were these two hookers taking this drunk. You know. [laughter] I thought that was a cute appropriate going away party. So we got on the Greyhound bus, but by the time we got to Hollywood, Florida, North Carolina was snowed in. They had one of the biggest snowstorms on the East Coast hours after we left. Could've fooled me, because when we left, it looked like a pretty clear night. You know I wouldn't have expected snow at all. But we went on to Hollywood, Florida, and Moe was no longer with her man, Larry. Larry was all junked out. J. D. was like, "Oh I miss Debbie, I don't wanna stay." It was just like I knew this was gonna happen, but I promised I would take care of her. So I made a deal with her. I said, "J.D., listen." Jody is pretty much a bi-sexual name. "So if we go straight to Sacramento, and if something is wrong with Philip and Debbie, if they're not getting along, will you give Philip your AmeriPass as you're going to be staying in Sacramento?" "Oh, yes, yes. I'll do it, I'll do it." I said, "Deal."
So I cut my trip plans short, went straight to Sacramento. Sure enough, things were not happening well in Sacramento with Philip and with Debbie Lugo. J. D. saw Debbie, they ran off somewhere to San Francisco. Philip got J. D.'s bus pass, and we took off, and I still had to go see my friend, Lenny, in Arco Santi so we went down to Arizona. We figured that the best thing that could happen was we'll see Lenny, the worst thing that could happen, we'll get drunk with a couple of poets and get into a fight. So, we did that, but found out that Lenny was no longer in Arco Santi. Instead, Lenny went back East. I found out later that what Lenny did when he went back East, was he joined the Army. Why, I don't know. But that's a whole 'nother story. So, we're hanging out there in Arizona, and I remember being in the Greyhound station there because I remember looking at the paperbacks in the bus depot. The Illuminatist Trilogy by Robert Wilson and Robert Shea had jujst come out in new paperback editions. And Phil goes, "You know what'd be cool?" I said, "What?" He said, "Going back to New York right now." I said, "Why would that be cool?" He goes, "To get a knish." [laughter] Well, he hit my weakness, because, if anything, I have a weakness for knishes. So, we get on the fucking bus, and we go to New York. We kiss the pavement. We get a knish. I figured best case scenario, I'll leave him there, and I'll get back on the bus and get to do my trip.
Well, it happens, we wind up with our friend, Charles Oliver Dewitt, who is still here in Sacramento, and has fathered lord knows how many children in this town. Incredible bass player, one of the best bass players that this town has ever seen. Well Charles Oliver Dewitt, um, was a great base player, one of the best bass players I had ever known. At the age of sixteen, I mean, he was playing with this band in New York City where they said they were like Mahavishnu Orchestra without the religious overtones. Charlie was an incredible guy. But he's also another story. Anyway, when Philip had left for Sacramento, and I had left for Sacramento with J. D. Bond, that left Charlie in New York. And Charlie was gettin' all depressed and everything because we weren't there. So Charlie decided to get an AmeriPass also. So he hocked some of his guitars, and now we had Philip, myself, and Charlie with AmeriPasses. And we were all gonna go back to California. O.K., we were just about to make our plans to get to California. I went to Banker's Trust. I got $500 out of the bank. We got a shitload of wine, and we got a bag of marijuana, and um, lo and behold, Charlie's friend, Alex Pameo, comes in from Puerto Rico. He was chased out of Puerto Rico for being a horse thief. This is a true story. This is absolutely true. So Charlie felt bad for him because we were gonna leave Alex in New York, and Alex and Charlie had fond memories, like when "2001: A Space Odyssey" opened up, and they went to the premiere of it, and they had this little paper bag like that filled with blotter acid. And they were just eating it like you would eat popcorn. You know, so, Charlie hocks himself another investment, and he got Alex an AmeriPass 'cus if anything, Alex could've gotten us all laid a lot in Sacramento because how many Puerto Ricans do you find in California? You find Mexicans up the ying yang. But Puerto Ricans? I think not, sir. So, we all get on this bus. Greyhound bus 8787. God, what a bus ride! Not as interesting as the bus ride from Arizona back to New York. That was interesting too. And not as interesting as the bus ride from Hollywood, Florida, to Sacramento which ended up in a couple of fights. But, just as interesting because we had this bag of marijuana, and we had, one, two, three half gallons of Almaden wine. We had two quarts of whiskey and a fifth of tequila and one tenth of 181 proof white Jamaican rum. And we had a guitar. Well, needless to say, the bus got a reputation. Real fast. By the time we got to somewhere in Nebraska, we had run out of all this stuff. And the bus had to drop off something or pick something up, I forget what it was, but they were gonna have like a ten-minute stay, and we were dry. I mean, we had nothing. We had been, I mean, La Bomba-ering it all across America. I mean, how many times can you get laid in Greyhound toilets and all that stuff, and you sleep on the luggage racks and all that stuff and you know, you get head in the back seat, and all that stuff, you know. It was a good trip. So, anyway, the bus driver gets off and there's this like 7-Eleven, so we go in. And I go and get a case of beer. And the guy says, "You can't have this case of beer." And I said, "Why?" And he says, "Because it's Sunday." I said, "It's 12:07 a.m., which means it's Monday." And he goes, "Sir, it is Sunday." I said, "No. It is 12:07, it is Monday, and what do you expect? You expect me to just take this stuff?" Well, I said that. I did not know that the rest of the passengers on the bus would take me literally. Next thing I know, people are walking out with cases of beer, bottles of wine, shades, cigarettes, everything. The guy is the only guy in the store going, "Ah, ah . . . ." And this is before they had cameras in those stores, right? So we all get back on the bus, you know. Bus driver comes out. All these sirens. [Bari imitates sirens.] Cops, everything, right? Bus driver gets off the bus, talks to the cops, goes, "Have you guys left the bus?" We go, "Nope." He goes, "You know, Officers they've not left the bus, so it's probably the bus that was just here before us." Philip, Charlie, Alex and I, we're all looking at each other, "What bus? There was no bus before us." So the bus driver gets back in, takes off. Once we cross the state line, he goes, "Any of you fuckers wanna pass me one of those beers you stole?" So we finally . . . by the time we got to Salt Lake City, we calculated it, and our AmeriPass would have run out by, I think, one hour, and we had to do some really fast talking. So, we got Charlie, who was the best talker, plus everybody in Salt Lake City would've been terrified of him because he was black. The tormented Mormon bus driver, he let us slide and that's how we wound up in Sacramento. And naturally, the first place we went to in Sacramento, was the Big Top Restaurant which was over on 16th and K Street, which was a straight 24-hour restaurant where all the hookers, and all the harpies and hawkers in downtown Sacramento hung out. I mean, it was great. And that's where Debbie Lugo worked. And Debbie Lugo had this friend named Pam. And the first night we got there, Charlie seduced Pam. And that was that. And then Pam had this friend named Alvin who lived over by McKinley Park, so we went over to McKinley Park. Alvin was studying . . . he was a comic book geek who was studying to be a scientologist. And he had this one bedroom cottage right across the street from McKinley Park, right? So we all converge on him, and he meets us and we said, "Can we stay here for the night?" We wound up staying there for 3 months. And that was it. That was how I got to Sacramento, California.
CN: What was it like out here, the literary scene in those times? Who were the writers around here?
BLK: It was pretty dead. You had a poetry series, you had a place up in Folsom, California called Bruno's Pizzeria. Ben Hiatt ran a series out of there. Ben Hiatt, he was this poet, madman, cowboy, came down from Oregon. His big claim to fame was that he won a National Endowment. And, he was supposed to do this stuff with interviewing Sacramento poets, and getting copies of it to the library. I don't think he ever finished the job, at all. And that was his claim, that's what he got the money for. And he had Bruno's Pizzeria. And then in town here, there was Giovanni's which was on I Street, between 20th and 21st Streets. It's gone through many many different changes since then. But that was like a coffeeshop, a coffee/sandwich shop run by hippies which had poetry in it. And then on 9th Street, between J and K, was this cool place called Monica's. Monica's was like an up-scale pizza joint. Have you met Keith yet over at Luna's? He comes to listen to poetry all the time. He just listens. I'll introduce you to him. Keith was one of the people who owned Monica's. And Monica's was the cool place to go for poetry. Gary Snyder would come down and read there. The poets you had at the time were C. B. Davis, he was the "enfant terriblé" of Sacramento, 16 years old, and you know they were touting him as he was gonna be the next big fucking thing in poetry. And he was also a jazz player. He played piano. He spoke Greek and Latin. He wrote this incredible jazz lyric poetry. And he taught Poets in the Schools along with Ben Hiatt, and Bill Howarth and Arthur Butler, and Robin Cota. So there was that group. And then there were the other guys. There was the gimp whose name was Hugh Melvin. And Hugh Melvin was at one time I guess this very very handsome rock-n-roller ladies' man, and, this was way before I got to town, he got into a terrible terrible motorcycle accident and ruined his leg for the rest of his life, and because of all the drugs they gave him, he became a heroine addict. And it also ruined his speech patterns; but he loved writing poetry. He loved poetry and he wrote such great poems like "Why Earrings are Noble," and "Why We Should Love Dogs." Great poems. And he would call up, there was this radio talk show host named Travis T. Hip on KZAP. Now Travis T. Hip, he had an interesting story. He was originally from San Francisco, and he wanted to buy a car. So Kerouac's buddy, Neal Cassady, said, "Heh, I have a car. I have a car to sell." So he dragged Travis T. Hip down to Fair Oaks, California, and said, "Here's the car, man." And as Travis was checking the car out, Neal jumped into another car and took off and left Travis here. That's how Travis wound up in Sacramento. Well he became a radio personality with the first FM radio station they had in Sacramento which was KZAP, along with Viola Weinberg and several other personalities. Viola had her own talk show. Travis had a talk show. God, Sally, I forget her name, she had this great talk show on conspiracies and everything. Sally something. But that was pretty much the poetry scene. It was pretty dead. You had Doug Blazek. Doug Blazek was here. D. R. Wagner had Open Ring Gallery which was on the K Street across from the Crest, they have that sort of mini-market. That was Open Ring Gallery. And they had poetry readings there occasionally, and that was more of the avant-garde. And that was pretty much it. There was no California Arts Council at the time. This is a year before the California Arts Council started. We're talking 1976. California Arts Council didn't start until '77, '78 I think. And The Poetry Center, or The Poet Tree, Inc., did not start until 1978. And so that was basically it. Patrick Grizzell wasn't even that visible because he was basically into visual arts. And the visual artists, the painters and everything, the only link that the poets had to painters was D. R. Wagner and Phil Weidman and Jose Montoya. And then you had Ellen Rosser. She did a thing called, "Hard Pressed," which I really love to this day. I think it's an incredible idea. I think it should be resurrected. She had an old letterpress. And what she did. She would get 12 poets. And they would each have one poem. And they would each come into her house and they would set their poem on the letterpress. They would set the type and everything, and they would press it, a hundred copies. They would press it. And when they were done, the next poet would come in, like the following week or so, and they would have parties doing this, right? And then she would get an envelope, one of these manila envelopes with the tie string, but the really hard core ones, the ones where you tie it, the front and everything, and different colors, and she would paint those, and she would take these 12 broadsides and put them inside, and she would sell them. And it was called, "Hard Pressed." And I think it only came out for 15 issues. And then you had Anne Menebroker who was doing "Impulse." She was doing that for seven years off her IBM Selectric. So you had a lot of publishing happening. You had Doug Blazek, who came from San Francisco by way of Chicago where he was part of the whole Mimeo[graph] Revolution. Ben Hiatt was also part of that Mimeo Revolution. He came to Sacramento by way of Oregon. His mag was "Skull Juice." And then D. R. Wagner was also part of that Mimeo Revolution; he came to Sacramento by way of Niagara Falls, New York. All of the pieces were falling into place to create a legitimate literary community. The first research that I can see of what we have today in Sacramento, the first germs that I can see of that starting is with John Campbell, who later became a corrupt fuck by doing this thing called, "The World of Poetry." But at one time he was legitimate. And he put out a book by Joyce Odam. And he would put out these chapbooks in 1958. But then he figured out, like he has to make money on poetry, so he created this whole big scam called, "The World of Poetry," and it was a real big blight on poetry. I mean, the Sacramento D.A. got involved, and all this stuff. Oh, it was horrible. But, going back to 1976, that's what you had. You had Giovanni's, you had Monica's which was the cool place, and you had Bruno's Pizzeria. And that was it for poetry readings here in town. I don't know what was happening up in Auburn. I don't know if there was anything in Roseville. I doubt it. Old Sacramento was a slum to the point where even the bus drivers were afraid to drive through it. And that was it. There were no poetry readings at Sacramento City College. Sacramento City College didn't even have a magazine yet. Their magazine would come a year later, in 1977, "The Literary Humanist." And Sac State had a couple of magazines, and they did some publishing. The English Club at Sac State published Raymond Carver's first book, "Near Klamath," a limited edition of a hundred copies, it was a chapbook. Probably the most expensive Raymond Carver item on the used book market today. I think if you have a signed copy of it, it goes for somewhere in the area of $3,500. And they also did an anthology called, "The Levy," which only lasted for one issue which had poems by Raymond Carver in it, Victoria Dalkey, Dennis Schmitz, and a couple of other people. And there was no other activity going on except for the poetry readings and the new monthly series that Ben Hiatt ran at the YWCA on 17th and L Streets.
CN: You yourself, now, kind of steamrolled your way through and got your Master's in Performance Poetry through Sac State. Is that right? Around that time?
BLK: Well, yeah, but it didn't happen like that. I mean, what happened was first I went to Sacramento City College. You have to remember that I dropped out of school in the seventh grade. In New York, I couldn't even take the high school equivalency test without having at least one year of high school. And, I'd be damned, if at the age 18, I was gonna go back to seventh grade. When I came to California, and I found out that you can go to college without having a high school diploma, if you had either an equivalency or if you were over the age of 18. . . that was the thing. So I originally went to Sacramento City College, and I stayed there for a couple of years because, I mean, to me it was "college"; this was an incredible thing. And the first I was published in California was through Sacramento City College, "The Literary Humanist." In fact, I just recently found those three issue at a book sale here. And the first poetry readings I organized were at Sacramento City College. And then I met Jose Montoya, and there was a meeting on the campus with MECHA, and I didn't know who MECHA was. I mean, I didn't know anything about the Chicano movement, the Royal Chicano Airforce, anything like that, nothing. But I tried to get the cats from "The Literary Humanist" . . . I figure like poets, writers, artists meet poets, writers, artists from another culture. We might as well get together. I was the only one that showed up. And it was great because at that meeting I met Jose Montoya, I met Louie the Foot, and I met Eugene Redmond who later would become my poetry teacher at Sac State. And, it was Montoya and Redmond, and Louie the Foot who convinced me that I should start my first poetry series. Which is what I did. I had my first poetry series at Sacramento City College Student Union. And it was on Wednesday nights, and then it was moved to Friday nights. And it was very successful, I mean, we would have crowds. I was always gifted at promoting.
But I stayed at Sacramento City College until around 1980, and then I transferred over to Sac State where, to make a long story short, I got a B.A. and after I got the B.A., I had raised so much trouble on the campus there, a lot of people didn't like me because I was a guttersnipe, I didn't have the nice clothes that the other students had. I didn't drive nice cars, in fact I didn't even drive a car. And you know, I mean to me it was all about literature. It was all about writing. I didn't have time for other stuff. I didn't have time to play campus politics. And so they didn't want me in graduate school in the English Department. So I had to do something, so I went to graduate school actually in the Special Major Program. So yeah, after I secured the Master's Program in a Special Major at CSUS, I went to the Graduate Office and I asked them, "can you double major in graduate school? " And they said, "No"; and I picked up a book and I said, "Aah, here's the latest catalog, and here are all the rules for graduate school, and . . . gee, it says nothing about not being allowed to double major. And they looked at me and they said, "Where do you want your second Master's degree?" [spoken very slowly and ponderously]. And I smiled, little angel that I am, and I said, "English." So after that it was a numbers game. I did the first Master's degree ever in the area of Performance Poetry from an accredited college. And even that became sort of a cat-and-mouse game between the University and myself. They thought, they literally thought this all the way up until the premiere of the Master's degree, that I was gonna stand behind a podium and read a poem that I rehearsed with some Director. They actually thought that. Oh, they were so naive. I mean my Master's degree went on to be shown on MTV. I mean I did not do a slack-off Master's degree. So we put this great Master's degree together for $60 and a case of beer. And it was a big secret. I mean, everybody in the Theatre Department knew about it, all the students were like doing set designs and not letting their teachers know what they were doing. It was like all hidden and everything, all clandestine, you know. It was really cool. Even up to the very day of the performance, they didn't know what we were doing. All the administration was constantly trying to sabotage us, but we were always one step ahead of them because all the secretaries were on our side, and we knew what was going on. And the thesis, it played for five days. And it went off without a hitch. It was called, "Psychic Sores and Clear Glass." And it was about a sort of psychic nervous breakdown that the narrator has while he's riding a train going to a rock-n-roll concert in Queens, New York. And he sees, though a mirror, a compact mirror that this woman's using, the backwards headline of the New York Daily News saying, "Jim Morrison of the Doors--Dead, Age 27." And all of a sudden, his mind just like splits open, and everything that he was, and everything that he is, and everything that he will be, collides in that one second. And it was a good play. It was a good poem. It was a 60-page poem. And we had some good people. Chrisanne Becker, who now writes for the News and Review, was in the play. This other young lady named Chrissie, she's now down in L.A. right now, she does a lot of voice-overs for animation and everything and commercials. Jason, because of his part in the play, he wound up getting accepted into Juliard and acting. Arthur Butler was in the play. I don't know where Arthur is. I miss him dearly. He's one of my oldest friends in Sacramento. At this moment he's not talking to me, but that's another story. It was directed by Jim Bryant, who is somewhere in Northern California now, god, what's that city that's just past San Francisco, Ro something.
CN: Santa Rosa?
BLK: Santa Rosa, yeah, he's in Santa Rosa. That's where he's living, doing theatre over there. The videographer has gotten a job since then working for MTV. But I don't know if he still works for them because he got into a really bad car crash. But anyway, like, you know, it became a numbers game because in the last semester of my B.A., I was allowed to transfer 9 units into my Master's program. Well I had 2 Master's programs. So I was able to transfer those 9 units twice, and since the last semester of my B.A., all I was doing was taking Master's classes, I had 15 units of Master's classes. So I transferred all the essentials. When I got into my Master's program, all's I had to do was take 2 independent studies, a 150 class, and a Classical Literature survey, and turn in my thesis, 6 units each. Well, that was easy. Both my theses were written while I was doing my B.A. because I was so bored with doing my B.A. I mean, everything they were teaching me during my B.A., I had already read. I have this memory. I was in Graduate School for 2 weeks before I turned in both my theses. I mean, the Master's program was only I think some ridiculous thing like 28 units or something like that. Really ridiculous. And, 6 of those are your thesis. That leaves you with 22. Of those 22, 4 of those can be independent study, right? So that leaves you with what? 18, I think. And then of that 18, two classes have to be Literature. So I took Homer and I took a survey class on American Literature, right? And then all the other classes, I'd already transferred over, so I had nothing to do. So I just graduated. And the day I graduated, I dropped a whole bunch of psilocybin. And it was the one day in the history of Sac State, the only graduation they had in their history from when they first opened up in 1949, right, where it poured rain and thundered and lighteninged, and there we are marching through this muddy field and there's my arch enemy, Dr. David Bell. And he's going, "Now students, follow me, or else you'll get lost, you'll get lost." I said, "We already are lost." And I told all the other graduate students to bow down as the people were cheering and somebody in the aisle saying, "Thank you Bank of America. Thank you Wells Fargo. Thank you Rivercity Bank." And I'm ripped out of my face on psilocybin, so when he gives me my diplomas, it was a special moment. I have to show you the picture some day.
CN: Well you end up here going to Naropa for the M.F.A. Can you talk a little bit about that?
BLK: Oh, god, that started when the Sacramento Poetry Center which is The Poet Tree, Inc., because they've never officially changed their name to the Sacramento Poetry Center, they were gonna have a benefit reading and Gary Snyder was gonna read. Gary Snyder had broken his leg. So, I'd been bugging Pat Grizzell and Luke Breit for years to bring Anne Waldman. So Gary says, "Look, Pat. I can't do the reading, but I'm sending somebody to cover me, and her name is Anne Waldman." Now, mind you, this is the Sacramento Poetry Center, right, they're supposed to be on top of it [claps hands once], you know. Grizzell comes over to my house and goes, "O.K., Kennedy, you're getting your shtick. Snyder can't read, he's sending this dame, Waldman, to read, right? Who is she?" [laughter] I had a field day. So Waldman came. She saw. She conquered. [Somebody] tried to put the make on her. He failed. He walked out of Anna Hernandez's house like a broken puppy. I mean, literally, and it was really funny because I asked Waldman about, you know, going to Naropa. She said, "Well, apply for it." So I applied for it. And I sent them my writing sample and everything. And I hadn't heard back from them, and a year passes, so I figure like, nothing happened, you know. Then one day, I'm hanging out with this Born Again, you know. This real Christer. She wants to get into my pants for Jesus. They do that every now and then. And so there's a message on my answering machine: "Bari Kennedy, this is Anne Waldman. I am calling from Naropa. Call me. You can reach me at the office. 303-" and gives me the number. "Or, you can reach me at home. 303-" ba da da da da. And I am pissed off. I am so pissed off. I had a bad day. This woman wants me to fuck her. I don't want to fuck her because she's like this holy roller Christian type, right? I mean, this is the only woman I knew who scheduled when she was gonna masturbate. You know, gimme a break. So, what happened was that, I called the number. "Naropa Institute." "Yes, this is B. L. Kennedy. May I please have the Writing and Poetics department?" "Writing and Poetics." "May I please speak to Anne Waldman?" "Who's this?" "This is B. L. Kennedy." "Hold on please." "This is Anne Waldman." "Anne, this is B. L. Kennedy." "B. L.! Oh my god, we've been trying to get a hold of you! I am so sorry. We had gotten your application and we had approved it, and somebody had lost it, and we just recently found it behind the file cabinet. When can you be here?" "When do you want me here [sic]?" "Now." I said, "Well, Anne. It's a couple of days after Thanksgiving. When do you want me there?" "Now." So I had to pack up everything. I was running a very successful poetry series at the time at Webber's bookstore. When I had Webber's, and you can ask Rebecca this, 'cus she read at Webber's. When I had Webber's, that series was scheduled 3 years in advance. People thought I was crazy. "What if you're not alive in 3 years?" "Trust me." I know the script better than any of 'em. But after I left, this tradition was started in town that I hate which goes on to this day. I cannot stand it. I think it is bad form. I think it is unprofessional. When somebody is hosting a poetry series, they are there to host a poetry series. They are there to promote the featured reader. They are there to host the open mike. They are not there to promote themselves. I hate it. Another thing that bugs me with open readings is, nobody knows how to use a microphone, yourself included. They all look at the microphone as if it's either some alien creature or, as if they're giving it head. Women get up on it like, ooahhh [choking sounds]. You know. What the fuck is that? You don't suck it off! You know. It's a tool. Use it as a tool. Don't be afraid to take it out of the stand and use it. You know. Don't be afraid to use your body as a part of your poem. I would love to see somebody take sign language, and as they're reading, use their body to sign. But use it, use the whole body [gets up and starts moving] as a whole movement, as they're reading with the microphone, signing. That would be unique. That would be cool, and it would be unique. But you see, what happened is that the last great ages of invention some say were the 60s and 70s. In poetry, I would say it was the 80s which was the last great age . . . the golden era of the form as poetry was definitely in the 80s. Especially, in Sacramento. Sacramento will never have an era again like it did in the 80s. It had 2 major marathons. The first one which was a 73-hour marathon which took place on the K Street Mall, which all the poets in town laughed at until they saw the media. Then they flocked down there. "Can we read? Can we read? " Fucking hypocrites. Um, then the second was the first Java City marathon which was 169 hours. And in between there, you had these poetry bands like the Nebulous Stucco Thing, Noise Church, which were adopted by the visual arts community. You had, Landing Signals, that came out, which was the first time the visual artists worked with the poets. And nothing stopped it. Even when we raised money for Landing Signals. We raised $3700 at one benefit, only to have it ripped off that night by a gallery owner. It didn't stop it. The 80s were a very very important part for Sacramento. I was running 7 different poetry series on top of doing 2 Master's degrees. Think about that. And my poetry series, and you can ask Sharon Doubiago, ask Julia Vinograd, ask anybody, if a person read at my series, if they featured at my series, one, they always got paid. Always. There was none of this donation shit. I charged. It was $2 at the door. I charged. The poet got the whole door. They always got a nice home-made meal. And if they needed a place to stay, they always had a place to stay. But anyway, I think we're losing track here. So go ahead. Shoot.
CN: So me tell me like the way you become to love language when you start to get into writing? How does that start for you?
BLK: I really cannot remember how that starts. I've always loved language. It was an intuitive thing. My mother could not read. My father knew how to write his name cursively. I liked the way words looked. My mother could not read, but she had to have the newspaper. And I'd liked the way words looked when they were linked together. They were like hieroglyphs. I remember I used to take catalogs and cut out the words and make like word collages out of them. There were no books in my house. I was not allowed to read. My mother was afraid of knowledge for some reason. I don't know why; maybe it was something that had to do with the way she was raised. I know that she had to be psychologically damaged in one way or another. I guess that in the 1930s, my older brother, my half-brother . . . my mother was knocked up by this guy named Schwartz, for lack of a better term. And he cut out of town. And well, you know, in the 1930s, you're a sixteen-year old girl and you're pregnant, you know. It didn't look good. So my grandmother and my grandfather adopted the kid. And my mother had to relate to her own child as her brother. That had to do some psychological damage. It had to. You're not gonna convince me that it didn't. So I wasn't allowed to have books, other than comic books. Comic books taught me how to read. And my cousin, Bob, who is somewhat of a grifter, furniture salesman, U.F.O. chaser, in Phoenix, Arizona, taught me how to write cursively. And so by the time I was in first grade, I was writing cursively, and I had a pretty good vocabulary. I never went to kindergarten or anything like that. I started writing . . . like all children, I came to poetry like nursery rhymes or something like that. So everything rhymed. I wrote a poem called, "The Flying Saucer," about a flying saucer landing in the park. And it all rhymed and everything. It was a really silly poem. But, that's what I thought poetry was. I had an imagination, though. And there were no bookstores. Books were sold the same place you got newspapers, in the candy store. Or, at the newstand. There were no bookstores. The first bookstore I ever saw was in our second neighborhood, we moved to Grand Concourse, and it was called Bookmasters. And god, when I walked into Bookmasters, it was like walking into a candy store. It was incredible. There were all these books all over the place. There was poetry, there was science fiction. All this stuff. I mean, I would be there and I would just look at these books, and I would take this book from the shelf, I would take that book from the shelf, and I would take this book from the shelf, and then I would walk out of the store with them. I would just walk out of the store, and I would walk down to my mother's house and I would stick them into the boiler room, and I would hide them. And when my parents were asleep, I would go in there and I would have a flashlight and I would read them, and I would take really good care of them. And then a week later, I'd go back to Bookmasters, I'd put them back in their place, and I would do it again. Until finally, the book people got hip to me. And they asked me what I was doing. And I asked them if they were going to arrest me. And they said that depends on what I was doing. I told them what I was doing because my parents wouldn't let me have a library card. And so two of the people pretended to be my parents, and I got my first library card. And I had probably the greatest summer of my life spending it in the library, just like, wow. And I still remember reading my first contemporary poet, it was Kenneth Patchen. And I remember picking up, it was at Bookmasters, picking up a copy of Patchen's love poems which was published by City Lights, and reading this poem for Miriam. And it said, "Do I not deal with angels when into her eyes I stare." I was floored. From then on, I knew that this man was going to be a major influence in my life. Which indeed he was. And one of the ways I thanked him years later was when I was at Naropa, I was hired by the University of Colorado and put on a show called, American Renegades, which honored poets who specialized in visual arts and poetry. And it featured D. R. Wagner, D. A. Levy and Kenneth Patchen. And it celebrated Patchen's picture poems. And so I got to thank him for all that poetry he wrote. You very rarely get to thank the poets who have influenced you. I'm very fortunate that way. After I left home, I moved down to The Village where I got to meet people like Ed Sanders at the East Side bookshop, and Allen Ginsberg, and I got to meet other poets. I accidentally met W. H. Auden once. I didn't know it was W. H. Auden [laughter]. I was waiting to go to a poetry reading and this old guy's there with this younger guy in leather, and he goes, "So, you like poetry." I'm like, "Yeah, I like poetry. I like poetry a lot." "Well, who do you read?" I said, "I read Dylan Thomas, I read Keats. And I like Dylan Thomas more than I like Keats." And he said, "Well, you can't go wrong with those choices. I'm glad that you like poetry." And it turns out, several months later, Auden died, and I realized that it was Auden that I was talking to. I got to meet a lot of the people that influenced me at St. Mark's in the Bowery, that's probably the most successful poetry series in the country, and the reason it's there, the reason it's at St. Mark's place in the Bowery, is 'cus that was Auden's favorite church. And that's why that poetry series is there. It's an Episcopalian church I think. I've gotten to meet Allen Ginsberg, Leroi Jones (now Amiri Baraka). I've gotten to meet Robert Creeley who I read way early. And he taught me about the use of syllables. Allen Ginsberg made me understand a long line, and breathing. Now I don't understand why I get these people who do not like Ginsberg, or do not like Creeley, or just dismiss them. It's really interesting because they'll dismiss Ginsberg, but they'll embrace Whitman. And essentially they're talking about the same thing. They're talking about celebrating the human spirit. Ginsberg did not invent the form that he used. That goes all the way back to Catullus, the long line. Whitman didn't invent it neither. I mean, America has a lot that it owes to the French poets, the French Symbolist poets like Verlaine and Rimbaud. Patchen was totally influenced by Appollinaire. I got to meet poets and these painters. So if I went to the Museum of Modern Art, or if I went to an art gallery, and I was in New York City, so that was an extra added benefit, I'd go, "Wow, what does that mean?" And chances are I'd be standing next to somebody who was well versed in either poetry or in art or in literature, who, because I was this young kid, would explain it to me. And so I got this wonderful wonderful street education, because I had this enthusiasm. And by the time I did go to college, I found out that I had been better read than a good deal of my teachers. 'Cus my teachers confined themselves to one or two cultures, mostly either English and French, or English and German; where I was all around the place. I was reading Japanese writers, I was reading Chinese writers. I got into Chinese literature by trying to understand Pound. I remember trying to read Joyce at a very early age. I had that enthusiasm. I wanted to write. I know I needed to write. And I was never going to stop writing. I couldn't. I would take breaks from it, but I would never be able to stop. And, I knew that to be a poet was a very big responsibility. And I did not know whether I was up to that responsibility. And I did not make a vow to poetry until I was 37 years of age. Before then, I never called myself a poet. Other people called me poet. I would shy away from it. Other people would introduce me at readings as B. L. Kennedy, the Poet. I would shy away from it. At the age of 37, I figured that, I'm gonna be stuck with this for the rest of my life. By this time, I had already produced over a thousand readings. I had given birth to the Kerouac reading. I'd given birth to, what, two major marathons. At the time, my latest book came out, which was, "Intricate Music." So like I said, at the age of 37, I took a vow to poetry. I knew I was never gonna be able to leave it. And that's been my life. You know, one of the things that saddens me about poetry today is that I don't see that enthusiasm. I don't see a lot of young people exploring reading other poets outside of their own. One of the things that is really getting to me at readings now is these high school kids who are coming in, and they're not even reading poetry. They're reading from their diaries. "I broke up with Johnny today. He broke my heart. I wished I was a flower." You know, I mean, it's sad, it's really really sad, and what's even sadder is that the people who run the series, they all encourage it. They encourage it, and the other thing they do which totally disgusts me is they bring up this twelve-year old kid. Well what the fuck has this twelve-year old kid done with their life that they have to write about. You know? So, yeah, that was that. I mean, I came from the streets. I loved poetry. I had the advantage of living in New York City. I had the advantage of being self-educated. And I had the advantage of being an over-enthusiastic asshole who wasn't afraid to ask questions of anybody and everybody. And that's what I did, and that's how I got my love for poetry enforced. And that's how I got, as far as I'm concerned, one of best goddamned educations in the world.
CN: It's the impertinence and compassion hand-in-hand that's a very interesting combination. But that's where, to really examine, to shape, to change, to do those things, you have to love the world, but you also have to be seeing it as imperfect and wanting to change, to improve, to add what you can to change the world. Poetry is a way to do that.
BLK: Poetry is a great alchemic device and I think that a poet is a great alchemist, at least, a mature poet. Once the poet gets past that bittersweet, "Oh, people are paying attention to me," and realizes that what they are doing with language is, in effect, creating waves of change, from the inside out, and from the outside in. People ask me about the way I approach a reading. Well, you know, when I approach a reading, I usually play with the audience's energy. I draw all that energy into me. All of it. I bring it into me, and I bathe myself in it, and then I just shoot it back out at them, but in a way where it covers them like a great ocean. And then they bathe in it and they cover me, and so it goes back and forth, back and forth. Or like in the 1996 marathon at Java City, in a sense, that was really quite an egotistical statement, and yet, in another sense, it was also a great alchemical statement. Egotistical because I wanted to prove that it could be done. Alchemical because I wanted to make a poem. And I would stop at no reason. And I had the benefit of getting 580 readers to read and in so doing, they created this entire vortex, if that's the right word, of poetry that permeated that entire neighborhood of 18th and Capitol. People told me that when it ended, people went over there and they were taking down the stage and everything, and they just sat there and cried because it was the most important thing that had happened to their lives. Film crews from Italy who were coming to interview Lawrence Ferlinghetti heard about it while they were in transit in Chicago, changed their plans and flew to Sacramento just to film it and interview. It was so important to people. To this day, people still talk about that and ask, "When are you going to do it again?" So, yeah, the poet is a great magician, a great alchemist. And in so being, while the poet affects the world with his or her vision, the poet also affects his or herself, both internally and externally by bathing in whatever vision there is 'cus the poet themselves is just another tool of the poetry. The poetry is bigger than anybody, if that makes sense.
Copyright B. L. Kennedy, Crawdad Nelson, and Eskimo Pie Girl