John Wieners was a friend for seconds at a time. When I first met him in 1974 I liked him for his sexual as well as poetic glamour. A couple of his teeth were knocked out and his face was worn but it oozed more than enough hauteur to attract closer inspection. He was (and is) the coolest gay poet, that is almost to say, the heaviest rocker-predator who, despite pathologies, could not be obscured.
Like today, though, Boston in the 70s was a center for trial runs, rehab and obscurity, and John did what he could to keep it that way. For stretches John appeared friendless, while still attracting a circle of local caretakers and fans, as well as infrequent visitors from out of town. Gerard Malanga and Rene Ricard, two fans of his who were to go on to document and propagate John-the-legend for a younger generation, had left Boston by the mid 70s. By 1974, well after Asylum Poems and Nerves, John had taken up what became his permanent bachelorhood on Joy Street, Beacon Hill.
Bostonian and then West Coast publisher Joe Dunn had by this time moved back from San Francisco, along with his wife Rose Dunn and their young daughters. They reinstituted their Monday poetry soirees in their flat off Hancock Street, a block over from John’s. As the center of all verse, John stopped by on Mondays, occasionally, as a silent or sotto voce presence, while Joe held court reading and enthusing over the privileged texts, works of Charles Olson, Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser, Joanne Kyger, Steve Jonas, Robert Creeley, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Robert Duncan, and of course John’s work. In a troubadourish disarray of pressed flowers, dirty diapers and worn Tarot decks, Joe and Rose ran their wine-drenched evenings as research confabs where regulars were urged to bring work by contemporary poets we were reading at the moment and, if inspired, one or two pieces of our own.
The program here, as I recollect it, was Orality reified as The Field in which compositional mechanics like meta-reference, meter, symbol and other units of analysis are subsumed, as oral utterance succeeds most, after all, when the processed parts appear both of minor import and improvised. Sometimes a confab member sought analysis. I remember one needy poet who requested that John underline sections of her youthful manuscript that he found interesting. He dutifully returned her pages the next week with single letters of words, such as the ‘e’ in ‘the,’ undermarked by red dots.
The first few seconds I felt close to John were in late spring 1976. I had arranged to meet John and Alan Davies at Harvard Gardens, a blue collar bar on Cambridge Street, near Joe and Rose’s and John’s place. Alan, known then as a Boston poet by way of Canada, was editing Occulist Witnesses from temporary digs in Dorchester. Alan had been in the area a few years, having attended Robert Creeley’s poetry class at Harvard Summer School in 1972, and having subsequently hand-published John’s remarkable treatise on and for young poets, ‘The Lanterns along the Wall,’ which John wrote especially for that class. I had previously mentioned to Alan that I was putting together a new poetry mimeo, Shell Magazine, and I wanted desperately to have new work by John in the first issue.
Alan agreed to meet, but he thought I shouldn’t ask John for poems. Only a few months earlier Good Gay Poets had brought out Behind the State Capitol to what John felt was negligible critical attention. The poop was that John was burned (or burned out) and had stopped writing. (John released few poems and no books over the following decade.)
When John showed up at Harvard Gardens, he seemed distracted, and more alarming, to me, he came empty-handed. We proceeded as was custom, however, sitting at the table and drinking just a bit, and the chatter eventually led to my big ambition. I have no clear memory of how I asked him for poems, of particular words I used, but I remember John’s eyes meeting mine in a linkup of what felt like trade. Poet meets another of his publishers. John pulled several crumpled pieces of paper from his sweater pockets, and handed them over. To paraphrase Frank O’Hara’s depiction of Wieners’s poetry debut twenty years earlier, as a publisher I felt launched. Among the six poems from John in that first issue of Shell are several that are gathered near the end of Cultural Affairs in Boston: ‘Twenty Years,’ ‘I don’t have a thought in my head,’ ‘night, that last month of the last’ and ‘Upon Central Ave And Milton by Irene Dunne.’
I have a couple of other friendly encounters with John to go over, but as a local myself I’d like to digress briefly to bring up a couple of regional-cultural points to demonstrate how I navigate through John’s Central Avenue and John’s Milton and, for that matter, John’s Irene Dunne.
John is often characterized as a poet of the working class and even of the poor. John’s mental illnesses and his Marxist postulations reinforce this view. However, John’s upbringing, family demographics, etc. complicate the assumption that he was born impoverished. While Central Avenue literally parallels Eliot Street where John lived – not as terribly swank as the estates around Milton Academy, say, or those on Adams Street, where George H. W. Bush was born – John’s growing up in Milton, even on the dreary side of town among bread-winning folks straddling Dorchester and Saint Gregory’s parish, qualifies him much less as a poet of the poor, more as a bard of the bona fide lower middle class. Further, John goes on to graduate from Boston College, second-tier, yet hardly a poor boy’s school.
Middlebrow status is a fate worth fictionalizing, and the sociological norm, I believe, is to fabricate upward – that is, to aim oneself a step or two higher, as in the upper middle or upper class. John’s downmarket strategy, his emphatic embrace of popular glamour to foreground and contrast with mundane circumstance, shares a similar Catholic aesthetic and indiscriminate ambiguity to that of the younger Andy Warhol or the Eileen Myles of full-punk mode. Each in her way communes, semi-aristocratically, between the brazen piety of an unextraordinary Catholic background and the ironic halo effect of secular fame. This is much higher ground than the Academy. John’s lofty communings are voicings with Irene Dunne, Barbara Stanwyck, Billie Holiday, Jackie Kennedy, et al., the lights seen wafting over the red brick, sans ivy, of his neighborhood church, Saint Gregory’s.
I visited John in his ‘rooms’ a few times. On my first visit I came with my boyfriend Don / Dawn, who changed his name to Angel for the occasion. I reintroduced myself to John, ‘I’m Jack.’ Then, ‘This is Angel.’ John was aurally amused and we three were off on some skyline banter. John showed us around the mostly empty but hardly austere chambers, palely accented with little stacks of movie zines and collages in progress, not a book of poetry in sight. I confirm Raymond Foye’s anecdote in Cultural Affairs about a big bowl filled with aspirin ‘for the guests.’ This is precisely what John said to Angel and me when I pointed to it on a table off the center of a side room. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, though, the bowl was not chinoiserie, as Foye reports, but clear crystal, exposing the heavy pallor of hundreds of white pills.
Angel, who died of AIDS in the 90s, had brought fat joints of terrific marijuana, but unlike in Foye’s interview, John smoked very little, even as Angel and I kept puffing. John’s rooms must have filled with smoke, an image I now conflate with a Jonathan Borofsky wordplay mural, one in which characters with wings are duped into thinking themselves ‘guests,’ get ‘gassed,’ and then get transformed into ‘ghosts.’ Before we left John that day, Angel handed John an unlit joint, which John received graciously, tucking it into a hole in his kitchen wall ‘for a rainy day.’
I race now to the year 1999. John’s life is almost over. I’m living in Japan, and after several years of more schooling and career shifts, I take up poetry publishing again, only now it’s even cheaper than mimeo. I’m e-publishing at a site I establish as <theeastvillage.com>. During the summer of that year I vacation in Boston, and I arrange to meet John with the help of his last caregiver, Jim Dunn, no connection to Joe, Rose, or Irene. My problem here is that I ingest rancid peanut butter hours before meeting time, and am forced to cancel – cancel – what would have been my last face-to-face with John. My purpose, like the first time, is to charm John into giving up a poem or two for the website. Before our meeting Jim, like Alan that first time, is sure John won’t do it. After my no-show, Jim and I think John, too, won’t buy my excuse, and before we all three might calm down and reschedule I’m forced back onto a Northwest flight to my teaching job in Japan.
There is a final, friendly encounter here, nonetheless, so bear with me. Back in Japan I keep bugging Jim with phone calls and e-mails. I insist that if there are poems in John’s possession and if John is willing to let one of them go, John’s universe of readers will be perpetually grateful, and so forth. Jim tells me yes, maybe, no, and communications between us go on to fray. Jim still types up a poem of John’s titled ‘Egg Nog,’ but Jim’s not sure it’s even a poem since it’s written on the back of a shopping list, and I had better check with John directly, Jim says. I call John that night, dawn in Japan, and read him back his poem:
The quality of mercy
is not strained
It lieth along the center road
It falleth from the nude sky
as gentle earth rained
over green pastures He maketh
it to abide by Misted Q lanes
whosoever can tell what kiss
brings forward HIS peace
The quality of mercy is not strained
It falleth from the gentle earth like heaven.
In Japan it’s starting to rain as John whispers, ‘This sounds a lot like me. Please use it.’