I carved this grinning creature on a linoleum block in 1979 for the cover of my book Kidz, whose blunt text was a brash as the figure. I had returned to the Bay Area following two years of peregrinations in Europe having left in the fall of 1979 with the fabulous sum of $1700 in Traveller’s Checks (rent for a one-bedroom apartment was about $136.00/month in Oakland in those days). I had managed to travel for two years on this money having many adventures (and lovers) in various countries and cities. With a girlfriend I shared a cave-house in the village of Oia (population 200) on the island of Santorini, and eventually travelled to Amsterdam (by way of Athens and Milan) where I ended up squatting a flat with a formidable Dutch woman who later became the Green Party representative to the Parliament. But in summer 1979, nearly two years after I had left, I returned to Oakland eschewing the prospect of a marriage and family in yet another foreign country, sparing the fine soul who thought he would brave a life with me from taking the risk. The idea of self-determination and autonomy had a strong pull, and the Bay Area was familiar, a safe place to which to return. The punk creature was a pretty good indicator of my attitude.
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The poetry community felt like a static bubble after being away. I had been immersed in other worlds (conceptual art, gallery scenes, artists’ books). The invitation to do a reading in a series at Cortland Corners as part of my re-entry to the scene was irresistible. Two principles seemed to prevail in the Bay Area poetry world in the late 70s. One was the belief that poetry was political by virtue of disrupting normative syntax, being difficult, and resistant. This was Viktor Shklovsky and Russian Formalism in the service of the Language Poets, who drew on other (varied) traditions—Surrealism, Imagism, New York School writers—in their formulation of a position as well as a practice. Intellectually rigorous, the scene had provided a fine crucible for honing my work through active dialogue with my colleagues. But the other principle reflected the gender politics and priorities of a local poetry culture in which hierarchies of power (mostly male) and identity were meant to be acknowledged. Deference, if not obeisance, to the established order was essential for social success. My punk performance did not fit the mold. Bad bad bad.
Accompanied by a portable cassette tape player as my back-up band, dressed in black clothes topped with red underwear, a bathing cap, goggles, and streaming gauze veil, and ghoulish makeup (black lipstick), I strutted into the venue and belted out a song with these lyrics: “How come you wanna kiss me when you know I eat sh*t? Don’t you know baby that you like the taste of it!” A few more verses and a repetitive chorus completed the performance, along with a few scraps of writing and higher level (maybe) thought. My audience was aghast, to put it mildly. Disapproval? Way too mild a term. Disgust? Repulsion? Dismissal? I had committed the cardinal sin of irreverence. The transgression against the codes of poetry reading bordered on unforgivable. Humor was not a conspicuous trait among the literati, and they lived the conviction that play was fundamentally unacceptable. Above all, they recognized that the ludic act fundamentally disturbed their equilibrium and threatened the assumptions and values on which they operated as a social group. In other words, I was being a brat, thumbing my nose, and daring them to accept me back among them.
I was not exiled immediately. That took a few more years during which I entered graduate school at Berkeley and then, informed by critical rhetoric and theory, organized what turned into a standing-room only event, a panel addressing the question “Who Is Speaking: The power of discourse” at the venerable Intersection site in San Francisco. That was when discourse had become the trendy term, and paradigms had shifted away from structuralism and semiotics towards deconstruction, everyone was reading Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, and Hélène Cixous. I committed another fateful error by calling attention to the blatant sexism of the poetry scene and making it the subject of the panel. After that evening in 1983 I was fully excommunicated. With the exception of a couple of very close (women) friends, everyone turned their backs when I entered a reading. Everyone. Closed ranks. My life was already elsewhere by then, focused on academic pursuits. Manifesting that persona posed different challenges from performing in bratty mode.
As for the 1979 event, I was hardly a hard-core punkster. Dog collars and studs, safety pin accessories and black leather, chains and spiked Mohawk hair were not my style or culture. Though punk had New York roots, I associated it more with the British scene. I didn’t share the working class ethos or condition, being from a middling middle-class US background where all we aspired to was a decent living and time to read. My angers and issues were more localized (gender related), and I had a vague suspicion that the punk aesthetic might be associated with unsavory politics.
My punk persona was just one in a long line of other characters I had invented and inhabited. These included Dark the Bat-Elf, the Pupa, Thistlemouth, Oh Oh, Trash Child, the lovers in Any Other, and various characters I performed over the years. The last was when I acted out a cyborg in the early 1990s when Simulant Portrait was first published—and before cyber-feminism was a trend. Meanwhile, the little 1979 punk-creature, with its disrespectful gesture, became a leit-motif, lifted from the cover of the book, and used as an avatar at various moments for its f***-you attitude. Even now, the character and posture feel immediate, accessible, not at all remote in spite of four decades’ distance from original creation. These parts of ourselves modify over time, but don’t disappear. Someplace I probably have the cassette back-up tape, its oxide particles likely dispersed like pollen across the winds of time.
And the book? Kidz? The tale was a critical condemnation of the hypocrisy I saw around me: “They have the best of everything and they always have. Their resources are vast, their energy abundant their youth exuberant, their frustrations momentary and their pleasures profound.” And later, “They live at a peak, in a condition of privilege, these kids, with complete indulgence and complete permission.” These statements described the self-satisfied behaviors and pretense of radical oppositional thought I saw around me.
I enjoyed performing and of course the number I composed for my Cortland Corners gig should have become an instant classic, but oddly, my musical career did not take off. This was in spite of my having composed the spectacular, never-performed, musical, Waiting for the Revolution, with its feature songs, “Bye Bye Mayakovsky” and “It isn’t just my arm you’re breaking, it’s my heart.” Another alienating performance piece, “What I know about Musicals—or the Nature of Event,” also failed to capture the hearts of millions. A few snippets quoted from its lyrics might explain why:
“How to get a hold
on the principles of operation.
A logic which describes
something more than itself, this is matter.”
“It isn’t just a matter of the act,
What’s innate is in fact.
Any little bit of stuff
Can become sufficient cause.
What sort of symptom
Is this the condition of?”
Cosmology and metaphysics, the tangled logic of explanation of all things, somehow failed to find easy acclaim after I sang these lyrics in the early 1980s. While my literary friends aspired to status as serious writers, I longed to be the author of popular fiction, a calling to which I still aspire. An early attempt at composing a consumable (erotic) text, How Wet Can you Get? Misfired completely. I presented a sample section to a friend to see if they thought it might find an audience. He read the chapter “Not Just Licking but Intelligent Looking,” and asked me if I were mentally deranged. Did I imagine sentences like these would be legible to anyone, let alone a broad public: “She may have fondled their hard-backed covers, may have peeked into their contents—rifled the pages of their books as they sat shelved—those noted references she preferred to never state but only subtly, with a savoring dictation, stroke into an implicating mention.” Chastened, I abandoned the project.
How many of these personae do we possess? Act out? Inhabit? Acting the punky brat was daring, cost me something, but had its rewards. Fun to re-imagine one’s self through such inventions, play with the facets of self to find out which are viable. I am often struck, sitting in a meeting or participating in a professional situation, with the question of how the others present might feel if they knew they were in the presence of that little punk, or other incarnations of myself from the inventory of characters I enacted. Then I steal a glance at the assembled company and realize I have no idea among whom I might be sitting, so carefully do we conceal these other personae.
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Marching right out of that little house in the 2200 block of Rittenhouse Sq., bravely inventive and forthrightly self-absorbed where did those personas come from and where did they go? Who now sits at the table surrounded by scholarly investigations and ventures into the early morning mists for a run or a session weeding in the spring garden?
i love your punk self. hilarious.