Posts Tagged ‘David Meltzer’

Paterson Jarmusch

Monday, May 29th, 2017

queenandjack

Queen and Jack drawing by Todd

 

Objects have names (what our dreams

come to). “It’s what I want.”

Begin asking.

          Kate Greenstreet

We recently watched Jim Jarmusch’s new movie Paterson and I loved it from first frame to last. Marcia loved Paterson, too, and we have been talking about the film for days—a sure sign of a movie beyond the ordinary.

Adam Driver portrays the main character in Paterson, a man named Paterson, an introspective and emotionally subdued fellow; and Paterson is also the city in New Jersey where the character Paterson is a bus driver circa 2016 and lives with his sweetly zany artist wife portrayed by an angelic Golshifteh Farahani.

Paterson is also the name of an epic poem by William Carlos Williams about this same Paterson, New Jersey, founded in 1792 to harness the power of the great falls of the Passaic River. The movie is, among many things, a tribute to William Carlos Williams and his enduring influence on poetry and literature and art in America and around the world; and more specifically, his influence on Jim Jarmusch.

How would I describe William’s influence on literature and art? While running the risk of annoying those more credentialed than I regarding William Carlos Williams and his place in the evolution of poetry, I would say his lyrical non-rhyming poems explore abstract concepts—death, life, time, love, change, sorrow, joy—through the contemplation of things and happenstance composing everyday reality. His poetry was certainly not the first to do so, but he was among the early escapees from rhyming poetry, his sensibility modern and non-paternal, and his poems about birds and wheelbarrows and flowers and paintings and going to work and changing seasons and grieving and love are beautifully wrought, musical, humorous, unique, and accessible to those who don’t know Latin.

I first collided with Williams’ poetry when I was seventeen, a senior in high school, 1967. I had recently fallen under the spell of the poetry and personalities of Philip Whalen and David Meltzer, so visited Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park to see if they had any books by Whalen or Meltzer.

“Sorry, no,” said the all-knowing clerk, “but we’ve got several volumes of William Carlos Williams. Huge influence on the Beats.”

So I bought Williams’ Pictures from Brueghel and Selected Poems, and devoured them countless times over the next several years, feeling certain those poems were antidotes to the ills of growing up in middle-class suburbia. Fifty years older now, I rarely read William Carlos Williams, but while watching Paterson felt thousands of poetry synapses lighting up and burning brightly—much of that frisson owing to my youthful imbibing Williams and some of the poets he inspired.

In this day and age of political and economic chaos, when most American movies are painfully unoriginal sensory assaults created for the entertainment of not-very-bright children stuck in the bodies of adults, Paterson, a contemplative movie about a poet bus driver who lives and breathes poetry, is so unusual and gratifying for the likes of me, I must heap praise on Jim Jarmusch.

Things got complicated.

“It’s hidden

in the ordinary.”

(a shot that everybody

had

and used)

            Kate Greenstreet

For me, Paterson is a profound call to share our gifts with other humans. To not share our gifts is to go against nature, to betray the purpose of being human. We are here to share our thoughts, our feelings, our food, our wealth, our love, and our creations. Our brains and bodies evolved to interact and collaborate in complex ways with other brains and bodies; and to constantly resist such interactions and collaborations will make us unhappy and unwell.

On two occasions in the movie, Paterson bumps into other poets—people he doesn’t know—and is privileged to hear those poets recite poems they have written. As a result of hearing these poems, Paterson comes out of the shell of his emotional privacy and encourages his fellow poets to keep pursuing their art, to keep sharing their poems with others. As I experienced the movie, the universe clearly put these people in Paterson’s way to show him how to proceed with his life and poetry, a way he resists until…

Where nothing was, it had to be created.

We can’t make everything we need inside.

            Kate Greenstreet

Those two lines from Kate Greenstreet’s poem phone tap from her collection of poems case sensitive, elucidate Paterson’s challenge, the challenge for every poet: to birth a new reality, to bring forth a new world, through our words. Australian aboriginals believe they cause the physical world to manifest through their songs—they call it “singing up the country”.

Which reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s lines from his poem Ash Wednesday, lines I used to preface my novel Louie & Women.

Because I know that time is always time

And place is always and only place

And what is actual is actual only for one time

And only for one place

I rejoice that things are as they are and

I renounce the blessed face

And renounce the voice

Because I cannot hope to turn again

Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something

Upon which to rejoice

And that reminds me of another thing I loved about seeing Paterson: the movie inspired me to re-engage with favorite poems written by favorite poets, one poet and poem leading to another poet and poem—a delightful way to spend time. So if you love poetry, or if poetry was a formative force in your life, I think you will enjoy Jarmusch’s movie Paterson. And if you love poetry and movies, you may also enjoy the poetry and videopoems of Kate Greenstreet, who graciously allowed me to punctuate this essay with lines from her poems.

Glimpsing the Future

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015

Glimpsing the Future (Australian Ballet 2014

Glimpsing the Future (Australian Ballet) © 2014 David Jouris Motion Pictures

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2015)

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” Graham Greene

I like that quote, but I think for me there were many moments in childhood when doors opened and the future came in.

When I was six, having arrived mid-year in Mrs. Bushnell’s First Grade class at Las Lomitas Elementary, I won my first friends by telling them stories at recess, stories I made up. And there came a day when Mrs. Bushnell was desperate for a nap and asked us to put our heads down and nap with her, but Donny Dorset protested, “We’re not tired, Mrs. Bushnell. Couldn’t Todd tell us a story?”

So while dear Mrs. Bushnell slumbered, I stood before the class and told a story about a boy who befriends a talking alligator named Albert and a smart aleck parrot named Cocolamoko and the adventures that ensued from their friendship. And as I gazed out at my classmates and saw them hanging on my every word and laughing at the goofy voices I gave Albert and Cocolamoko, I saw what I might be one day: an actor playwright.

During the summer after First Grade, I fell madly in love with my classmate Diana Fernandez who lived just up the hill from me. She was the fastest runner in our class and the most fearless of girls, and to my eyes she was exceedingly beautiful and I wanted to kiss her. To that end, I started a neighborhood Science club, a fancy name for catching bugs and lizards and looking at drops of pond water through my father’s microscope and discovering the strange creatures therein. When I invited Diana to join my club and she unhesitatingly said Yes, I immediately scheduled our first field trip.

Looking back on this scheme to be alone with Diana in the forest, I marvel at my ingenuity and perspicacity, for I never again was so ambitious and calculating in my wooing of anyone or anything.

The blessed day of our expedition arrived and Diana came to my house in a darling blue dress, her long brown hair tumbling over her shoulders, a bag of freshly baked cookies in her knapsack for our luncheon in the field. And then, with each of us carrying a large glass jar and notebook and pencil to record how and when we captured our specimens, we ventured into the forest of giant oaks a quarter-mile from my house.

Several of these ancient oaks had branches so long and thick that over time they had bent down to earth under their own weight without breaking and snaked along the ground before rising up again to become entangled with other massive branches.

Thus it was possible to simply step up onto one of these branches and walk along and up until we were high above the ground. This is what Diana and I did in the name of science, though we both knew we were aiming to find the perfect place for kissing, which we did. I remember feeling confident we were in no danger of falling, though I cannot quite picture our perch. I do remember looking down at my dog Cozy who had followed us, and how small she seemed so far below.

Then we gazed into each other’s eyes, and Diana hypnotized me, and I was no longer a boy but a man, and she was a beautiful woman, and we kissed for a short infinity, during which I glimpsed a future where kissing Diana or someone like Diana would be a primary motivating factor in my life. I also glimpsed (or certainly sensed) the steamy jungles of adult sexuality, though I had no ready place to file that glimpse in my emotional file cabinet, though I must have filed the sensation somewhere because I remember those moments with Diana vividly sixty years later.

And then there was the poetry reading I attended with my friend Rico in a little church in the Fillmore in San Francisco in 1966, featuring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch. I was sixteen. To quote from my novel Ruby & Spear (available for a penny plus shipping online):

“The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become? And when the lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.

“I wanted to live in North Beach, to eat my meals at Mike’s Pool Hall, to take buses and wear a beret and hitchhike into the wilderness. I wanted to publish six astounding books, each containing seventy-seven truly great poems. I wanted lovers, lots of lovers. I wanted a Turkish lover and a Swedish lover and a Mexican lover and a young lover and an old lover and a black lover. I wanted a rich lover. I wanted a lover who worked in a bakery. I wanted a lover with long arms and a ring in her nose. I wanted to grow marijuana in my attic under a geodesic skylight from seeds sent to me by friends in Mexico and Lebanon and Thailand and Los Angeles. I wanted to drink red wine and read poetry until three in the morning in a pool hall on Broadway and have every word be so crisp, so clear and true that all my lovers would cry for joy, their tears laced with resin from my marijuana. And then I’d lick their wet faces and get stoned out of my mind and write a poem so charged with truth that all the poets who ever made love in San Francisco would be resurrected and given one more chance to write one last poem.”

Roots & Eggs

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

eggs & roots

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2013)

“Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet.” Will Holt

Lemon trees growing near the kitchen. What a wonderful idea. So we chose the perfect spots on the south side of the house for two goodly Meyers, the warmest and sunniest place on our property, only to discover that one of those perfect spots was home to the root mass, still very much alive, of a gargantuan shrub I removed nine months ago. Thus a Herculean task awaited me, one I would postpone until I brought the lemon trees home and their presence inspired me to extricate the massive tangle.

And so on a sunny Saturday, homeward bound after pruning a gorgeous green-leafed Japanese maple, a crab apple, and a plum, I stopped at the admirable Hare Creek Nursery on the south side of Fort Bragg and bought two little Meyer lemon trees. The friendly folks there cautioned me not to plant the lemon trees in the ground, but to grow them in tubs. However, Marcia and I are not after bonsais; we’re aiming for large trees festooned with hundreds of delectable yellow orbs, and I figure with global warming proceeding apace, the Mendocino climate should henceforth be perfect for growing citrus in the ground.

With the little beauties sitting nearby and crying for release from their plastic pots, I began digging around the root mass and confirmed that my nemesis was gigantic, well connected, tenacious, and uncooperative. To borrow from Bogart, I have met a lot of root masses in my time, but this one was really something special. After an hour of heavy labor using shovel, mattock, pick, trowel, axe and crowbar, the mass remained unmoving, as if I had done nothing. This depressed me, so I took a break, had some water and a handful of almonds and tried not to take the root mass’s indifference personally.

“The sensitivity of men to small matters, and their indifference to great ones, indicates a strange inversion.” Blaise Pascal

When I lived in Berkeley, and before I discovered a secret post office where I never had to wait, I frequently stood in long lines to mail packages and buy stamps. And on many such occasions, people in line with me would take it personally that they had to wait more than a few minutes to do their postal business, and they would say things like, “This is an outrage,” or “No wonder they’re going out of business,” as if the postal clerks were intentionally taking as long as they possibly could with each transaction.

Having made a careful multi-year study of the service in Berkeley, Albany, Oakland, and El Cerrito post offices, I have no doubt that the real cause of the slowness of service was the alarming number of befuddled and dimwitted customers who would, upon their arrival at the counter, act as if they had no idea how they came to be there or where on their persons they had secreted their wallets or how they wanted to mail whatever it was they wished to mail. The postal clerks would patiently explain the various shipping choices and how much each choice would cost, and the befuddled dimwits would stand in frozen dismay for minutes on end pondering such deep philosophical questions as “Priority or Media?”, “Would you like to insure that?” and “For how much?”

One day at the Albany post office, a man several places behind me in line shouted at the two harried postal clerks, “Has today’s mail been delivered into the boxes yet?”

The clerks had their hands full helping befuddled dimwits, so neither replied to the shouting man.

Their indifference enraged the man and he screamed, “Has today’s mail been put in the boxes? Don’t pretend you can’t hear me!”

One of the clerks said wearily, “Yes, the mail has been put in the boxes today.”

“Bullshit!” screamed the man. “I know a letter arrived for me today and you are intentionally keeping it from me. I demand that you give me my letter or I’ll call the police!”

The two clerks exchanged glances and one of them said, “Go right ahead, sir. Call the police.”

“Fascists!” screamed the man. “Thieves!”

Then the poor fellow ran out of the post office and the woman behind me murmured, “Thank God he didn’t have a gun.”

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Returning to the root mass, I resumed my digging and picking and chopping and clawing, and soon enough the mass began to move when prodded, which lifted my spirits and gave me hope of eventual success. After another hour of digging and chopping, there remained but one fat root connecting the root mass to the earth. I rose from my knees, took hold of my axe, positioned myself above my target, and was about to swing the axe high, when I felt a pang of empathy for the root mass and decided to wait a moment before severing that last life-giving tendril.

“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” Kahlil Gibran

Speaking of roots, I was thinking about homegrown carrots the other day as I was making pancake batter using eggs we got from our neighbors Elias and Emily, who also provide us with exceptionally yummy goat cheese. Emily and Elias’s eggs come from their herd of happy-go-lucky free-ranging chickens whose eggs are so delicious they make the best organic mass produced eggs seem tasteless and tawdry in comparison. Indeed, these Emily and Elias chicken eggs make my gluten-free pancake batter so rich and tasty I dread the day when I have to resort to store bought eggs again. But why did Emily and Elias’s grandiloquent eggs make me think about homegrown carrots?

Because there are few things in the world as delicious as a well-grown carrot in its prime just pulled from the friable earth of a wholly natural garden. Indeed, so sweet and delicious is a just-pulled homegrown carrot, that the very best organic carrots money can buy are but pale imitations of the homegrown variety. Just-pulled is a large part of the answer to why homegrown carrots are so superior to even the best store or farmers’ market-bought carrots; the delectable sugar in just-pulled carrots has yet to turn to starch. Ergo, Emily and Elias’s eggs are to eggs what just-pulled homegrown carrots are to carrots.

“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” John F. Kennedy

The roots of our culture nourished by art. Society setting artists free to follow their visions wherever those visions may take them. Can you imagine such a society?  Kennedy spoke those words on October 26, 1963, less than a month before he was assassinated, and I’ve often thought his words were prophetic of what was to come and ever after be called The Sixties, a brief era when more artists freely followed their visions than ever before. And it took the overlords of our society a good decade to get control of the situation and put a stop to most of that status-quo-threatening socialistic vision following.

“My ancestors wandered lost in the wilderness for forty years because even in biblical times, men would not stop to ask for directions.” Elayne Boosler

Who are your chosen ancestors? What are the roots of the decisions you make that direct the course of your life? The root mass got me thinking about roots, the ones we spring from and the ones we create for ourselves. Some root masses are inescapable, some allow for the intrusion of new roots, and sometimes we have to excise the present root mass to make room for the new.

I know I was emboldened by the poets Philip Whalen and David Meltzer and Lew Welch, the example of my uncle David, the movies The Horse’s Mouth and Zorba the Greek, and the powerful societal ferment roiling northern California in the 1960’s to drop out of college and follow my visions, much to the chagrin of my parents, speaking of root masses. My father and mother strove mightily to convince me to change my mind and return to the straight and narrow and safe, but I would not change my mind.

After two exciting, challenging and exhausting years of vagabonding, I found myself with a terrible cold, a worse cough, and barely surviving on rice and lentils in a badly insulated room in Ashland, Oregon. I was in the throes of writing my first novel and loving the work, but I was so lonely and sad and tired of being poor that I was sorely tempted to throw in the towel and return to the ease and comfort of college. And then at the absolute nadir of my despair, I received a letter from my father, the gist of which so surprised me I had to read the letter three times before I could even begin to believe what he had written.

My father wrote in black ink on light orange stationery that he was both jealous and proud of me for doing what he had always longed to do but never had the courage to attempt—to leave the straight and narrow and go a’ wandering with pack on his back, following only the whims of his heart and intuition—those words from my greatest critic providing the inspiration I needed to continue my uncharted course.

Some years later, I mentioned this remarkable letter to my father, and he snorted and said, “Don’t be ridiculous. I would never have written such a thing to you because I have never for a minute been jealous of you and I am not proud of you pissing your life away on your delusional infantile fantasies.”

“Oh, but you did write that, Dad,” I said, not at all surprised he didn’t remember writing such words to me. “And you sent the letter, too, along with a twenty-dollar bill that bought me chicken and eggs and almonds and cheese and cookies and a wonderfully warm jacket from the Salvation Army.”

“There you go again,” he said, rolling his eyes and shaking his head and filling his wine glass yet again, “making shit up to fit your fantasies.”

“Great talents are the most lovely and often the most dangerous fruits on the tree of humanity. They hang upon the most slender twigs that are easily snapped off.” Carl Jung

Now the little lemon trees are planted in the good earth and sending forth their new roots—the gargantuan root mass gone. Emily and Elias’s chickens are foraging in the meadow, their just-laid eggs awaiting discovery in the coop. Carrot seedlings are emerging in my carrot patch, and soon I will thin the rows of promising babies, only one in a dozen to be spared to grow beyond the first culling.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

Rewriting Kerouac

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2013)

“Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.” Jack Kerouac

More than fifty years after his novel was first published (in 1957), a movie has finally been made based on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I have not yet seen the film, but because the movie was written and directed by Walter Salles, the brilliant Brazilian filmmaker who made the most magnificent Central Station, I wager his movie of On the Road will be beautifully made. I will also wager that On the Road, the movie, will owe much more to Salles’s genius than to the text after which it is named.

“I have suffered a great deal from writers who have quoted this or that sentence of mine either out of its context or in juxtaposition to come incongruous matter which quit distorted my meaning, or destroyed it altogether.” Alfred North Whitehead

Any meaningful discussion of Kerouac’s On the Road must take into account when the book was written and published. The book is a loose-knit rambling account of male friendship set in America in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when automobiles and the advent of suburbia were swiftly reshaping the physical and social landscape of the country and accelerating the breakdown of the social mores that had defined America for generations. Outside of this specific historical context, much of the novel will have little or no relevancy for most contemporary readers.

I think many of the complaints (and they are legion) about On the Road being badly written, boring, misogynistic, juvenile, shallow, and a colossal waste of the reader’s time are the result of readers hoping the book will reveal itself to be a timeless masterpiece, a revelation that will elude the reader unless he is that rare bird who enjoys Kerouac’s speedy chatty name-dropping word flow that is short on plot and continuity and long on…word flow, which in the context of the literary style-revolution of the 1950’s is significant. I think it no coincidence that Samuel Beckett’s highly abstract existential play Waiting For Godot, about two guys hopelessly lost on the road, was written and produced at roughly the same historical moment that On the Road was written and published, both works eschewing many of the structural and grammatical rules that theretofore governed their respective literary forms.

“All our best men are laughed at in this nightmare land.” Jack Kerouac

I first tried to read On the Road when I was thirteen, a paperback edition being available on our living room bookshelf. I was hunting for sex scenes and hopeful of finding them because the cover illustration on the 25-cent paperback featured a sexy young stud in the foreground with little pictures of scantily clad women in the background, including one picture of a couple in bed making love. Racy! Alas, careful skimming of what was to my young mind nearly unintelligible prose, uncovered only a few references to people having sex or having had sex, with almost nothing remotely juicy or graphic or titillating. Even the Mexican whorehouse adventure—a sort of climax to On the Road—was not particularly sexy, but rather pathetic. Fortunately, I would soon discover Lady Chatterley’s Lover and need no other masturbatory aid for years to come.

 “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” Jack Kerouac

In 1966, when I was sixteen, I was introduced to the San Francisco Beat poets by my friend Rico, and over the next several years I attended poetry readings featuring Philip Whalen (my favorite), Lew Welch, David Meltzer, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Allen Ginsberg. In retrospect, I find it fascinating that though all these poets owed much of their notoriety to their intimate connections to the world-famous Jack Kerouac, I never heard a single mention of Jack at any of those readings. When I was twenty, and only because I was so enamored of Philip Whalen’s poetry, I attempted to read Kerouac’s Dharma Bums (starring fictionalized versions of Whalen and Snyder) but could not force myself to read more than a few pages, no matter how many times I tried. Then shortly after giving up on Dharma Bums, I learned that Kerouac had recently died at the age of forty-seven from cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcoholism.

“Write in recollection and amazement for yourself.” Jack Kerouac

And so I attained the ripe old age of thirty-two without ever having read any Kerouac (other than my teenaged skimming of On the Road). I was living in Sacramento and very much enjoying the local poetry scene when I was invited to participate in a show entitled October in the Railroad Earth, a celebration of Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets. My fellow readers were D.R. Wagner, Patrick Grizzell, and Bari Kennedy. The format of our show, which became an annual event for many years thereafter, was that we would read works by Kerouac and his Beat poet pals in the first act and our own work in the second act. The readings took place in October in various dives around Sacramento, and for the first few years one of us was assigned to read October in the Railroad Earth, Kerouac’s poetic prose account of riding the train from San Francisco to Gilroy in October.

When I confessed to D.R. Wagner (a great visionary poet) that I had never read any Kerouac and had no idea what to read for the show, D.R. suggested I find a little something in On the Road. So to find that little something I decided to read the book and see what jumped out at me. Alas, if Kerouac’s word flow was largely unintelligible to me as a thirteen-year-old, On the Road held even less interest for me at thirty-two. And so I resorted to skimming, which brought me to a passage in which the narrator (the fictional Kerouac) hooks up with a young woman he meets on a bus—a passage I hoped to perform with some success for an audience of inebriated poets and poetry lovers.

However, when I previewed my reading for an audience of friends after supper one night, the unanimous judgment was that despite my best efforts, the narrative was difficult to follow and essentially pointless. And so, though I knew I was committing a great sacrilege, I spent some time editing the passage, adding a descriptive line here and there, and clarifying the myriad antecedents therein, something Kerouac seemed little concerned with, as if he assumed his readers needed no such clarity.

“It is not my fault that certain so-called bohemian elements have found in my writings something to hang their peculiar beatnik theories on.” Jack Kerouac

When the night of our performance arrived—the venue appropriately a subterranean bar (appropriate because one of Kerouac’s novels is entitled The Subterraneans)—the place was packed with Kerouac aficionados and poets and the special sort of people drawn to such literary social alcoholic events. And as I listened to D.R. and Pat and Bari read their Kerouac selections, I was filled with dread about what I was about to do: read my rewritten Jack to some of the only people on earth who might know that I had dared revise the work of their god. Was I crazy? Well, I was young and arrogant, which sufficed, so I took my turn, read with zeal, and garnered loud applause for my perfidy.

During the interminable intermission, I was approached by an enormous man with a prodigious mustache and a menacing look in his eyes. I braced myself for condemnation, but none was forthcoming. On the contrary, he shook my hand and declared, “You nailed it, man. You got the rhythm of his words absolutely spot on. I could hear the bass line going as you read. Bravo.”

And hot on the heels of the mustachioed behemoth came a gorgeous woman wearing a slinky sheath that clung most pleasingly to her many admirable curves. She clasped both my hands in both of hers and gushed, “Wow, I hate to admit, but I never really got Kerouac until now. I just…he never made sense to me, but as you read that scene I saw everything so clearly, like a fabulous movie. Thank you.”

At the next year’s Kerouac reading, I read Jack’s October in the Railroad Earth, and I didn’t change a word; and as I read that lovely flow of words I really got what Jack was trying to do with language, which was, I think, to sing like a jazz musician, talking and emoting through his instrument of words while staying open, wide open, to the feelings of the moment.

My Black Heroes

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” Bob Dylan

The black athlete I am currently most enamored of is Michael Vick, the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles who recently spent two years in federal prison for financing a large and illegal pit bull farm where dogs were raised and trained to fight and kill other dogs, and where dogs deemed unfit to be successful fighters were ruthlessly murdered, some by Vick himself. Several of my friends are unhappy with me for liking Michael Vick, just as they were upset with me for liking Mike Tyson, and for liking Muhammad Ali before it became politically correct to like the man who started out as Cassius Clay, and for liking Sonny Liston before I liked Cassius Clay.

I don’t like that Michael Vick treated dogs cruelly and killed them, but I understand that raising and fighting pit bulls is an integral part of southern culture. I sojourned in South Carolina in the 1970’s and attended barbecues at the homes of both white people and black people, and the climax of every such party came when the man of the house took me and a few other men to visit the kennel wherein he kept his illegal fighting dogs and the coop wherein his illegal gamecocks were caged. And as we stood in the presence of these ferocious dogs and ferocious birds, our host would proudly regale us with tales of grisly battles fought by his dogs and cocks, tales for which he expected to be greatly admired.

I don’t recount this southern lore to defend Michael Vick, but to suggest there is a cultural context for his actions. Had he come from China and been the son of a cat breeder providing cat meat to the markets of Beijing, we might wince at the thought of a child being taught by his parents how to slaughter cats, but most of us would understand that this person came from a very different culture than ours, and so be it.

“Willie Mays was the finest player I ever saw, make no mistake about it.” Willie McCovey

The greatest idol of my early childhood was Willie Mays. After Willie I added to my list of heroes Wilt Chamberlain, Cazzie Russell, Oscar Roberstson, Earl the Pearl Monroe, Julius Erving, and several other black basketball players. My current favorite among active basketball players is Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics.

The only white athlete I ever idolized was the Russian high jumper Valeriy Brumel. I was a lucky twelve-year old watching through binoculars at Stanford Stadium in 1962 when Valeriy jumped seven feet five inches to break his own world’s record. Inspired by Valeriy’s feat, I concocted a backyard high jump using a bamboo pole for the bar spanning the six feet between two redwood grape stakes with a pile of sawdust for my landing pad. I practiced jumping over that bar every day for several months until I cleared four feet eight inches, after which I turned my athletic attention to basketball.

“Music is the medicine of the breaking heart.” Leigh Hunt

I discovered Ray Charles when I was nine years old, and in a most roundabout way. My mother was a fan of the Mills Brothers who were black but sounded suitably white and whose pictures did not appear on their albums bought by white people. Of the big bands, my folks listened to Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey, not Count Basie or Duke Ellington. But in 1957, when the carob brown Harry Belafonte entered the American mainstream in the movie Island In the Sun, a drama exploring interracial relationships, my folks and many other relatively open-minded white people bought Harry’s album of calypso tunes featuring the title song from Island In The Sun.

I fell madly in love with Belafonte’s singing and played Island in the Sun so often that my mother would periodically hide the album from me lest she go mad. And when my grandmother sent me five dollars for my ninth birthday, I took the money to Discount Records in Menlo Park and asked the man behind the counter if he had any other Harry Belafonte albums. He found such an album, gave me two dollars change for my five, put the album in a bag, and sent me on my way.

When I got home, I discovered that only one side of the album featured Harry Belafonte. The other side belonged to a guy named Ray Charles. I was so angry that the record was not exclusively Harry, I didn’t listen to the Ray side for several weeks, until one fateful rainy afternoon my curiosity got the better of me and I lowered the needle onto the first cut on Ray’s side.

I have never taken LSD, but I have hallucinated while stoned and I have heard in excruciating detail many firsthand accounts of acid trips; and I daresay my initial experience of hearing Ray Charles accompanying himself on piano and singing CC Ryder was the equivalent of a beautiful acid trip. I felt as if the known universe had cracked wide open and I was looking and listening into an entirely other and better dimension, a place of astonishing colors and shapes and sounds and emotional possibilities heretofore never dreamed of. Indeed, so extraordinary was my experience of Ray’s performance of CC Ryder and the other songs on his side of the record, that when my mother screamed, “Turn that horrible noise off!” I was not even remotely the same person I had been before Ray sang to me, because now Ray’s voice and cadence and chords and feelings were part of me. I was no longer the child of my neurotic unhappy angry lonely confused biological parents who were forever asking me to be everything I was not; I was Ray’s child.

However, I was only nine. So I lived on with my biological parents for another eight years and suffered their vociferous contempt for most of what I loved: basketball, baseball, Ray Charles, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, rebels, fools, outcastes, and crazy geniuses. Soul music would eventually lead me to jazz, my musical pantheon to be ruled by Cannonball Adderly, Freddie Hubbard, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock until I fell far down into the rabbit hole of solo piano, jazz and classical, where I lived for decades without a care for any other kind of music. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“A cool heavenly breeze took possession of him.” Nikos Kazantzakis

When I was sixteen, I saw the movie Zorba the Greek, bought the book the next day, read it twice, and then quickly read several other Kazantzakis novels, including The Last Temptation of Christ and Saint Francis. Then I read Zorba the Greek again to verify and solidify Zorba as my guide, as the mentor waiting for me on a faint trail leading into the unknown. But how was I to traverse the suburban void and elude the dominant American ethos en route to taking Zorba’s hand? And who was there to show me the way to the beginning of the way?

At the height of my Zorba worship, my best friend Rico invited me to go with him to a poetry reading in San Francisco, an event I chronicle in my novel Ruby & Spear, published by Bantam in 1996, the following passage the purest autobiography I have ever included in a work of fiction.

“…a monster poetry reading starring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch. We sat down in the dark cool of a little church in the Fillmore, and Rico pointed to a pale man with curly black hair sitting two rows in front of us.

“‘It’s Robert Duncan himself,’ he whispered reverently. ‘My god, my god.’

“‘Who is he?’

“‘My favorite poet,’ said Rico, his eyes full of tears. ‘My numero uno hero.’

“‘What did he write?’

“‘The temple of the animals has fallen into disrepair.

“The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become? What about college? Sex? Money?

“Michael McClure stepped into the spotlight looking like Errol Flynn dressed all in black leather. He leaned close to the microphone and crooned, ‘I been hangin’ out at the zoo talking to the lions. Rahr. Rrrahr!’

“All the women in the audience started moaning and growling, too. It was my first intimation of the sexual potential of poetry read aloud. I was psychically overwhelmed. And when the lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.”

“Music rots when it gets too far from the dance.  Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.” Ezra Pound

Before my mother vanished into the netherworld of Alzheimer’s, she would sometimes muse about why I had chosen such a chancy and impoverished road when I might have been a doctor or lawyer or, at the very least a college professor. And why was I so enamored of black people and their music? One of her theories was that because we had a black nanny, Mary Prince, when my sisters and I were babies, I had transferred my love of Mary onto black people in general. Another of my mother’s theories was that her own fascination with rebellious female artists such as Isadora Duncan and Georgia O’Keefe had somehow been transmuted in me into a love for artists who rebelled against the status quo.

“Love is the offspring of spiritual affinity.” Kahlil Gibran

I think my love of black athletes, especially those who have fallen from the heights of great success into the depths of infamy, and then climbed back into the light despite overwhelming odds against them, has everything to do with how I perceive myself. My adoration of the outcaste warrior is indivisible from my adoration of the outcaste artist. I am always moved by stories about forsaken artists or athletes or social visionaries who are strengthened and refined into greatness by the adversities they are given to transcend. I much prefer my heroes imperfect and complicated and surprising and daring, and ultimately kind and generous and humble, for they have danced cheek-to-cheek with death and lived to tell their tales.

I recently saw a highlight in which Michael Vick was brutally tackled while scoring a touchdown against the New York Giants. After his terrible collision with a man a hundred pounds heavier than he, Michael rose from the ground and carried the ball to the stands where he reached up and placed the sacred pigskin into the hands of a young man.

The first hour of Todd’s reading of Ruby & Spear can be heard gratis on the Listen page at UndertheTableBooks.com, the entire reading available from iTunes and Audible. Actual copies of Ruby & Spear can be had for mere pennies via the interweb.