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Joe Salerno

I remember the 90s much better than the 80s because the 90s pissed me off. First, everyone started going grunge, but hell, I had worn flannels and work boots, and funky ski caps back in the friggin 70s and no one gave me credit for it. They told me I was a sloppy dresser. I was surly and moody, too, and took a dim view of humankind, and then along comes Generation X acting as if they had invented flannels and boots and baggy-assed jeans with holes in them, and the Fugs, and did they give me any credit? Well, Do you know Generation X to ever give anyone credit? They just bitch and moan about how greedy the baby boomers are, and then they bitch and moan about the human condition, and then they go gentrify some urban neighborhood, jacking up the rents, and filling it with health food stores and everyone looks very thin and very ungrateful. The 90s actually began in the late 80s. In Hoboken, they had already burned the poor out of their shit boxes and renovated the shit boxes. Then the artists started complaining it was too expensive to live in Hoboken anymore (They were right). They were replaced by surly Wall Street brokers disguised as artists. So the artists either moved to Jersey City or to Alphabet City (this was before Brooklyn) and I had a brief business with my friend Marco, helping artists move out of Hoboken. We had a pickup truck and a willingness to suffer. Lion claw bath tubs were all the rage, and, it being Hoboken in the late 80s/very early 90s, there was a whole field of old lion claw bathtubs. We moved that field of bath tubs. We moved it hither and yonder, but mostly to Alphabet City where the police were starting to beat up homeless folks in Tompkins Square Park because white people wanted to replace Puerto Ricans and turn Alphabet city into a safe, hip, organic, faux bohemian version of Disneyland Manhattan. White people are scared of homeless people. Did we do that? The white folks say. Of course not, we know everything there is to know, and we have read all of Howard Zinn and Chomsky. We also ride antique bicycles and act circumspect, skinny and beautiful in countless indie movies. Lets get these eye sores who will molest our cute children out of here! And that meant we got to move a whole field of antique bathtubs at the same time they were beating up homeless people in Tompkins Square Park. By the 90s I had been in the factory for years but had gotten more involved in poetry. I started running the Baron Arts Center poetry readings, and, for a while, the demographic included a lot of good looking 20 something and early 30 something people from New Brunswick (this is because slam and the brat pack had made poetry cool for a brief period). I finally had lovers in the 90s–just as my good body was going to seed and becoming a bad body. As I recall people thought muffins were good for you at the beginning of the 90s, and bad for you by the end of the 90s. I lived in the North End of Elizabeth on the border of Newark, and it was a good neighborhood for espresso, for Portuguese food, for Cuban food, for slightly burned on the top custards, for baseball games played by kids at night under lights, for Portuguese grandmothers all dressed in black with ankles the size of pit bulls going to mass, and going to the laundry mats, and scrubbing their section of sidewalks on their hands and knees. Allen Ginsberg was later buried in that neighborhood. The grandmothers grew to like me and suggested I give up baggy flannels and jeans for nice shirts with alligators on them and chinos. Then, they said, a good woman might like me. Somewhere around 1989 to 1991 yuppies tried to move into Elizabeth, but it was old world, with real bodegas and botanicas, and no brownstones. Elizabeth had the wisdom to replace most of its brownstones with fast food joints in the 1970s. Affluent bohemians need tin ceilings. All my friends and me had ripped off most of the tin decades ago. So we didn’t get gentrified. Plus, people actually had jobs in Elizabeth and could not be beaten by the cops who were their nieces and nephews and sons and daughters. Affluent bohemians who read Zinn and Chomsky can only take over your neighborhood if you’re broke and look dangerous. We didn’t look dangerous. We just looked like we ate too many custards. I liked the 90s. My cousin Ed had come to live with me in 1989/90 and had left me some good furniture (at a cost above what he had paid for it I later found out). Ed was gay and very good looking and had a bum of the month club. Ed was a player. These guys were very sweet and some would call me crying after Ed dumped them, and I’d have them over for coffee while Ed worked as a limo driver. I’d pray with them. I’d tell Gene, my favorite of Ed’s victims, that Ed suffered a traumatic childhood, and he was not ready for true intimacy. I did their Tarot cards. They said the same thing the grandmothers did: why don’t you dress better? Ed and the one ex he was still friends with took me out to a mall and forced me to buy stone washed jeans and a whole bunch of other stuff I probably ruined in the laundry. This was years before Queer Eye for the Straight Guy came out. When Ed left, he gave me a true compliment: “Joe, you’re the only person I didn’t pick a fight with in order to move out. I love you.” “Same here, Ed.” We parted on good terms, and it was only a couple years later that I realized what a deal he’d made on the furniture. By then, he had entered the seminary (Ed had flare). He later left the seminary and became a good teacher in Jersey City. (He had put my ratty furniture in storage in a wet cellar when he moved in. It could not be redeemed). I remember that I looked forward to hearing music again in the early 90s because it was just like music in the late 60′s and early 70s only slower and muddier and full of the surly nihilism that later became real and cheerful sociopathy in the 2000′s. I liked it. I also liked the Salsa music I started listening to: Ruben Blades especially. There was a salsa club just up the block from me and sometimes I’d go there with Cuban church members and get my groove on (which was not much of a groove considering I was a grunge white boy usually in flannels). My stone washed jeans and dress shirts made me sort of acceptable, and so I remember the 90s as a time of bridging many worlds and of steady work. I worked the night shift at National tool. We had a temporary bubble of prosperity in the 90s so the foremen stayed off my ass and I made my rate, made bonus, got overtime, and threw parties for my poetry friends. I also started taking people in–temporarily–when they needed it. I took in a guy named Jim who was slightly OCD, spoke six languages, and who, I found out later, liked pain. A woman I sometimes saw, sort of, had laid eyes on Jim, spoke French with him, and fell immediately in love. He left that day, taking his garbage bag full of clothes to move in with her, and then a month later, she called me up one night and said, “Why didn’t you tell me Jim was a masochist?” I said, “I didn’t know.” She said, “I don’t mind” but I really would like to do more than beat him up.” It turned out his ex roommate who lived down the block, this older man, had been his abusive lover and had broken Jim’s ribs a few times. This man later turned up dead, and Jim disappeared from the scene. I don’t know if he murdered the guy. So that was one person I took in. I took in homeless folks for a night, especially if they could cook, and I took in friends who were temporarily on the skids. I took in my sister and niece, and then they split to Florida. That’s when it occurred to me I was terribly lonely. My best friend, Joe Salerno died in 1995. That ended the 90s for me, the way Kurt Cobain’s suicide ended the 90s for others. The New Brunswick people became part of the exodus to Manhattan, and then Brooklyn (when Alphabet City became too expensive). The Democratic party, my own Democratic party sold me down the sewer with NAFTA. I remember the 90s as the decade in which the lifestyle blue state Democrats screwed over working class guys like me as badly as the Reagan folks did in the 80s. These new dems were people who saw themselves as “creative” and artistic and outside the box. They were entrepreneurs. They honestly thought they were all going to be Steve Fuckin Jobs–Zen masters of geek and slave masters of outsourced labor. They were the true grandchildren of the beats and saw pudgy white factory workers as so “post.” They completely ignored the fact that, by then, most of the factory workers were the very black and brown and yellow folks they pretended to champion. This was the decade of “post.” Everything was post. The music went bad again, and Madonna became a children’s book author. It never occurred to the white bobos, for all their reading of Chomsky and Zinn, and their “poor” bohemian lifestyles, and their tuva singer concert tickets that they had totally killed what little chance was left for unions, for worker’s rights, or for the real poor–not the “I’m a grad student and can always move back with my parents on Long Island” poor. Well, now, about 20 years down the line, those parents are old and there is no place to move back to, and being white is not as much fun as it used to be. I remember the 90s as being the decade where white liberals had one last fling. It is easy to live on salad with two room mates when you’re 25. It gets tired at 35. And tragic at 45. So it goes. Many married and are now eating salads on Long Island, or in some southern city like Nashville, so I don’t feel that sorry for them. I call these people knowers. They know everything. They don’t know half of what the old grandmothers knew in the North End: scrub your side walk. Love your family. Have nice times. Take care of the sick. Even with the coolest bicycles on earth and a basket full of veggies, you are going to die.

Poor Robert Creeley. In the 60s and 70s he was right up there with Robert Bly (though their styles are utterly different, their names are similar). The Robert he should have been paired with is Robert Francis, a great minor poet (minor in the best sense), who lived in the cool ominous, hawk’s wing shadow of Robert Frost.

But poor Robert Creeley is dead. I published him once, in Black Swan Review‘s Language poetry issue (Circa 1990). I met him once, at a reading celebrating urban poetry in Paterson–right near the falls. He was reading from William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. My job at the time was to serve the “immortals” sandwiches at the box lunch–me and five or six of my poetry friends. Me being me, I bitched and moaned about kissing these asshole’s asses all the way through. Joe Salerno being Joe Salerno, he was far more reflective and humble about the experience, even after Ginsberg insulted his loving parody of Howl which appeared in that particular issue of Black Swan.

I didn’t mind serving the “immortals” so much as having to endure their far less than famous hangers-on who treated me far worse than did the asses that were getting kissed. A local poet who I knew and who had managed to ingratiate himself with Ginsberg and Algarin, made me take back a soda twice. On the third trip I told him: “Listen mother fucker… I’m not getting paid for this job. I’m a volunteer. I know where you live. You keep this shit up, you act high and mighty with me just one more time, and I’ll shove this can up your ass, cut a coin slot in your fucking heart, and call you a Coke machine.” He shut up.

At any rate, Creeley was the most gracious person there. I was sick of famous poets (I have been sick of famous poets all my life) and did not approach him for fear that he would act, like, well, you know, famous. I never say anything intelligent to famous poets, and, to be honest, they don’t say anything terribly intelligent to me. I was already pissed off that Ginsberg had been less than nice to my friend Joe, and I still wanted to join the Khmer Rouge and execute everyone in the room who had ever published in a magazine with a circulation of more than three thousand. I was not happy. We had been told we would have a free box lunch with the poets (Robert Creeley, Algarin, C.K. Williams, Ginsberg, Baraka, Baca, and so on and so on). We were not told we would be serving lunch to the poets while those who didn’t volunteer for shit (our fellow New Jersey sycophants) would be sitting with them ordering us around as if we were incompetent waiters and they were CEOs. In retrospect, I have only myself to blame. If I had volunteered in a spirit of altruism, I’d have enjoyed watching Gerald Stern talk with tuna in his mouth, but alas, my motives had been elbow rubbing and I deserved any humiliation that ensued.

But back to Creeley! At my lowest point–when I was ready to give up poetry forever and thus deprive everyone of another nobody–Creeley, tall, lanky, and with an endearing comb over approached the table I was brooding at. He said, “Someone told me you’re Joe Weil.” I said, “Yes. I am him of whom you speak.” He said, “I just wanted to thank you for publishing one of my poems.” He extended his hand. We shook. I said, “Do you like the section in Paterson where there’s a drought and the river is dry and they have all these giant sturgeon?” He smiled and said, “Yes… I greatly enjoy the prose excerpts, especially in book One.” I said, “Me, too.” He said, Thanks again.” I said, “No problem.” He floated back to his immortality. I almost got Ginsberg to eat a corn chip when I drove him home from a reading in which I was the co-feature. I had a nice conversation with Louise Gluck about Robert Schuman. Jamie Santiago Baca wanted me to take him to a go go bar. Such is rubbing elbows. It’s really kind of sad and stupid, and it’s better never to meet anyone whose poetry you like.

Ah but poor Robert Creeley. Now that he’s dead, everyone says they don’t like his work. He’s known as the Black Mountain guy who wrote “skinny” poems. Poets over sixty still revere him. If I could make up a character, it would be an 80 year old professor with a long beard in a nursing home banging his cane briskly against the hardwood floor and shouting, “What this country needs is a good dose of Robert Creeley!”

Why don’t people like Creeley? First, he doesn’t tell a story. Second, he’s a white Harvard dude from New England. Third, he isn’t a language poet, but he ain’t a confessionalist, either. He’s a speculative writer. Unlike Stephen Dunn, he doesn’t offer wry wisdom in a masterly yet conversational tone. Many of his poems sound like bits of thought cut off at the stem. His skinny line was so imitated that it became a cliche. All his friends are dead or dying, and young American poets have a frame of reference no where near as good as what is on their iPods. In terms of poetry, their memory doesn’t surpass the life expectancy of a fruitfly.

I call Creeley a speculative poet because his playing around with the structure and syntax of a sentence, his devotion to the inarticulate, the almost said, or not quite said, is exactly that: provisional, based on what ifs. He is most definite and certain in his love poems, which are as good as the best love poems by Williams, Swenson, ee. Cummings, or, for that matter, Kenneth Patchen.

I bring him up because he was continuing the work of Williams–not in terms of the anti-poetic, but of the provisional, the poem as fragment, as “almost said/then not,” the defective, the bits of halted speech, a sort of mystical reticence which, to tin ears, seems non-existent, but is the gobbled and cobbled and ruined talk of the American male–the one who cannot speak, except too loudly and stupidly, if at all, and too little, too late if, like many “educated” American males, he hides in his office, drinking–removed from the very love in which he would partake.

Creeley was truly gracious. I’ve read his poetry, but not much on his life. Apparently, he fooled around with Rexroth’s wife, thus causing Rexroth to declare war on the beats (Kerouac was guilty by association). Other than that, I am sure he was a functional, highly intelligent, highly cultured drunk. He is our Celan. He is out of fashion right now because he is not super sized in any way. His is an intimate music. I would read him with a Thelonious Monk piano solo and a really good chicken salad sandwich. Stay away from the booze.

I met Joe Salerno in 1987 while featuring at a church in Morristown, New Jersey. As I recall, there was snow that night, and ice and I almost killed a fellow poet, Charlie Mosler when he went to get into my car, and, being a relatively new driver, I took off a little prematurely and turned him into an ugly version of Peggy Fleming. I was featuring with Steward Ross, a veteran of the New Jersey poetry scene. Joe, Stewart, and Charley are all dead now. It does not seem strange. Of the three only Charlie got to live into his sixties. Successful and well lauded poets live as long as borscht belt comedians; having your ass kissed on a fairly constant basis tends to increase life expectancy. However, the rank and files, the grunters, the ones who make it possible for poetry to exist anywhere outside of New York City often seem to enjoy a life expectancy equivalent to the male population of bullet ridden ghettos.

None of them smoked. Steward did like his ganja and his drink and never tired of missing his days as a hippie in San Francisco, but Joe was a vegetarian, and Charley a man who insisted on sleeping ten hours a day, and, as I recall, he lectured me on my fondness for disco fries and double cheeseburgers.

At any rate, they’re dead, and so is the wonderful poet and human being, Enid Dame, and the equally kind and gracious Yictove. These may be poets you’ll know, but I doubt it. They were all a regular or, at least frequent part of my poetry scene. I hung out in diners with them, argued and conversed late into the night. All of them were older than me, Joe by ten years, and Charley by a good 20, but there is no age where a mind is lonely for fellow travelers. We could have all been Trekkie or model airplane enthusiasts. I would like to think poetry is more than a hobby for nut jobs. Still, any hobby that creates years of friendship and the sense of communion with both the living and the dead more than justifies its absurdities.

I have told endless stories about Joe to my students. I have given out at least a hundred copies of his book. I am sick of my stories. I feel they are only the grooves I have worn in the road of my futility, attempting to peal out of my grief. I hate that he is not alive. On the day of my wedding, I wanted him to be there–he and my mother, and I wept like an idiot in the bathroom. He was a friend who could be more happy for your good fortune than you yourself. I remember when I featured with Allen Ginsberg, he showed up with his sons at my house, followed me to Camden. When Ginsberg needed a lift to West Paterson to see his step mother, Joe let his sons take the wheel of his car, and he rode with me, a sleepy Ginsberg, and my friend Deborah LaVeglia. He was much happier about the day than I was. It was May, 1995. Joe already had a slight pain in his back. By November of that year, he was dead of lung cancer– age forty-seven.

I always felt privileged that someone as talented as Joe wanted to be my friend. I couldn’t fathom it, but decided to receive the gift gladly. Besides his talent, I had no idea how accomplished he was. He had won the Hopwood award at Michigan, and his competition was Gregory Orr, and Jane Kenyon. I never knew until he died. Joe did not brag. He did not feel the need to puff himself up. His attention to other poets was beyond the often considerable selfishness of this “Art.” As Donald Hall wrote in the postlude to Joe’s book:

Joe Salerno’s devotion to poetry–to the art, not to himself as a practitioner– set a standard for everybody… if any cynicism or professionalism had stuck to me, Joe rubbed it away by his clear and radiant passion for the art itself.

Tonight I will introduce a poet at the official University reading for faculty members. She is a fine poet and does much for the program here. It will be a pleasure to introduce her, but, afterwards, my wife and I will not be sitting at a diner, chatting it up. Charlie will not be talking in 50s jazz lingo, and scolding me for my bad eating habits. Joe will not be there to remember whole lines of other people’s work. It will be professional, and pleasant (if a little stiff), but the camp fire of what is most human, most vital, most important will be missing. I try to tell my students that professionalism can be murderous. It can not offer what poetry truly has to give. It can succeed at the level of men, but it can not fail at the level of the truly profound and meaningful pact we make with love, beyond, and perhaps, because of our futility. I tell them certain forms of failure are Godly, and never to be mistaken for that poor, rather boring mechanism we call success. This is what Joe pointed out in his great poem “Poetry is the Art of Not Succeeding.”

I will end with a different poem of Joe’s because today the weather is horrible, and I feel gutted and lonely and I miss Joe as well as many others. We were good friends for only eight years. He’s been dead almost twice as long as I knew him. My mother has been dead twice as long as I knew her, but you do not ‘Unknow” those you love. Moving forward is for self-help books and motor boats I have always been on the side of Lot’s wife, and of Orpheus. All things vanish before our eyes, and we have no recourse but to defy that edict of what passes away and to break our gaze against the stones.

The Invention of Immortality
Joe Salerno

I had just turned
to go , when you called me
back into your room
The lamp a velvety glow
beside the bed.
“I love you,” you said
to me, the words
strangely stark and serious
in their familiar
setting. And leaning
over you, your small face
at four and a half
just blossoming into boyishness,
you reached up and
drew me down with such a
frightening hug
into your pillow, whispering,
“Even when I’m dead
I’ll love you.”

The other day, I posted a poem of Pablo Medina’s which I published in my second issue of Black Swan back in 1989. I put the magazine out with money from income tax returns. It was an act of love, an act of madness, and four issues went forth into the world before money prohibited my doing anything out of love.

Many of the poets were friends of mine, others friends of friends. In 1990, I published a language poetry issue—probably the only poetry mag in Jersey that did so back in 1990. Robert Kendall was my guest editor for that one, and layout and design went to the Aljira Arts Foundation, then under Victor Davson. Aljira later came into a shit load of grant money. Back then, they were fairly new. For that issue Robert Creeley gave us a poem.

I look back now and realize I published some good poets and fiction writers who later became well-known (or as well known as you might get in literary circles). It represented a wildly eclectic set of poets, fiction writers, and artists. Some of them, including Creeley, are now dead: my best friend, Joe Salerno, Charley Mosler, an unknown jazz poet and pioneer of spoken word, Steward Ross who got angry at me because I cut 14 lines out of one of his poems (it was twenty five lines long), but then used my edited version when he had it published in an anthology, Yictove, who ran the Knitting Factory poetry readings for several years.

One of these friends who is still very much alive is Tom Obrzut. I think Tom is one of the greatest writers of what I call “Wise ass.” “Wise ass” uses the dead pan, absurdism, and just drifting along tone of a comic routine as its chief shaping device. It is post-Lenny Bruce funny, meaning it is not tight and set up like a joke, but wanders over topical terrain, playing with the tropes that run from the silly, and anti-poetic, to the dark humor we might see in certain forms of Eastern European poetry—especially that poetry influenced by dadaism. It is knowing, “hip” in the old style of hip rather than ironic—kind of Steve Martin meets the funnier side of the Beats.

Well, this is an early poem from Obrzut. I think he was only 23 or 24 when he wrote it, and he was a lot prettier than he is now. Some of his newer poetry written by the uglier, older Tom, can be found in Maggy magazine. Tom is so deadpan some people take the poem seriously and don’t laugh, and wonder why this guy would talk about his friend eating four pounds of meat a day. Anyway, the poem:


Vegetarianism

My friend Anthony used to eat four pounds of meat a day.
Now he doesn’t.
I remember once I was a vegetarian.
Jeff says, “everyone was once a vegetarian.”
So it’s not so special
And besides I never ate four pounds of meat a day
except maybe once and that was kielbasi
Which isn’t exactly the same thing because kielbasi’s different
not like bacon or sausage really.

I like eating meat
Allen Ginsberg tells Pollack boys not to eat meat
And the Dalai Lama doesn’t even kill flies
Because he doesn’t want that responsibility.

And neither do I,
But there’s all these microbes on the seat of my pants and when I
sit down they’re screaming in pain and dying.
(Now, I know I’m sounding sarcastic and that’s not what I want to do)
I’m just trying to say—
We’re all busy killing things even ourselves
Which isn’t so great but it’s the way it is, the way it was, and
the way it’ll always be.
Someday, I’m going to die and never listen to Elvis ever again.
And that’ll be a shame.
Not especially for anyone else, but I won’t like it so much.
Not that that matters because even God don’t care—or the void or
whatever it is that powers this machine universe—don’t care
what happens to my ass.
And it’s only sad for me because it’s my ass and I like it.
Maybe that’s what the cow said before they smashed him in the
skull in that slaughterhouse
or maybe he didn’t have time and all he could do was think:
“Too bad, too fucking bad.”
As the end of the world came smashing through his eyes—
the way it always does.

This brilliant piece of wise ass manages to be pro-meat, anti-meat, and to show the absurdity of both positions because it uses the “just talking” wise ass voice of someone thinking out loud. It gets at the larger point of Buddhism: that everything in the world is suffering, and we cannot even breathe or sit down without destroying worlds. This is a far more difficult poem to pull off than the Pablo Medina’s well-crafted deep imagism. It does not have the “gravitas” of Medina’s poetic pallet, but note that it’s lack of gravitas makes the death of the cow that much more terrible (and funny). In its own meandering way, it makes an almost perfect essay on the impossibility of practicing a non-violent existence. We are meat to the universe, and the end of the world comes to us all. So what are the mechanisms of this structure.

Begin with an incidental fact that carries a sense of the ridiculous:

He’s a Dentist Now

My friend Mavis breastfed her children until they were 12.
I mean I thought it was a little quirky, but she was a motherly
type—you know—like the time she made me a quilt of all my favorite characters from Dante’s Inferno?
God I miss her. I thought when they arrested Mavis, it was
excessive. She was nice, always a good word for everyone,
and never a bad, just a good heart—you know what I mean?
The kids are fine—good cheek bones. All that sucking.
Jim, her eldest, went a little crazy for awhile, but don’t we all?
He’s a dentist now, and from what I hear, a really good one.

This ransacks the speaking schtick of Tom, and rambles, but it lacks his sense of voice. Voice cannot be ransacked because true voice, unlike tone, may be inconsistent within its range of indicators. The ability to play a modulating voice against a consistent tone is a deep mystery of poetics—especially of what we might call the conversational poem. Tom does not get outlandish (well he does, but not by creating an extreme situation). To get outlandish would ruin the dead pan. Still, he is absurd, and he uses deadpan and rambling in ways that allow the modulations of consciousness to go just about anywhere without seeming out of bounds.

Of course, if he suddenly gets overtly poetic on us, his poem would fall apart. It is hard to make a lyrical moment out of uber-prosaic lines like “my friend Anthony used to eat four pounds of meat per day.” Tom does what a good poet does—enters his own organic structure of language, and plays his consciousness against that loose structure. It is not the words, or images, but his tone, his timing and rambling that makes his poem work. So here’s your assignment: finish the Mavis poem, and then re-write Tom’s poem, adding poetic imagery. See how it affects the tone or voice? See how far you can take this experiment until the humor of the situation vanishes. You could try writing a pro-meat poem in a voice with a deadly serious, and humorless tone unaware of its own stupidity. Give it a shot.