The Operating System

6th ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 17 :: Robert Gibbons on Bob Kaufman

HAPPY POETRY MONTH, FRIENDS AND COMRADES!

For this, the 6th Annual iteration of our beloved Poetry Month 30/30/30 series/tradition, I asked four poets (and previous participants) to guest-curate a week of entries, highlighting folks from their communities and the poets who’ve influenced their work.

I’m happy to introduce Janice Sapigao, Johnny Damm, Phillip Ammonds, and Stephen Ross, who have done an amazing job gathering people for this years series! We’re so excited to share this new crop of tributes with you. Hear more from our four guest editors in the introduction to this year’s series.

Hungry for more? there’s 150 previous entries from past years here! You should also check out Janice’s piece on Nayyirah Waheed, Johnny’s piece on Raymond Roussel, Phillip’s piece on Essex Hemphill, and Stephen’s piece on Ronald Johnson’s Ark, while you’re at it.

This is a peer-to-peer system of collective inspiration! No matriculation required.
Enjoy, and share widely.

– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor/Series Curator

WEEK THREE :: CURATED BY PHILLIP J. AMMONDS

Poets are fingerprints
A menagerie of textures
that leave a unique cultural-
impression on the world

The seven poets that I have the honor of curating for the week of April 16-22, are varied in tone, approach, inspiration–but all have a thundering presence that thrums the strings in your soul. They demand that you be present and feel whatever you will.

Throughout this week, readers will take a journey through waves of love, self-reflection, mourning, discovery, tribute, longing and acceptance.
To hear these poets speak life into their muses and perform their work, please come to our reading, Tribute, at Dixon Place on Monday, April 24th at 7:30 PM.

Phillip J. Ammonds, a Brooklyn native, is a founding member of the writing collective Writeous, with whom he has co-produced three chapbooks.  Phillip curates Rainbows Across the Diaspora, the queer text reading series at Dixon Place in New York City. Phillip also performs his work as Trinity Rayn, Drag Poet.  His work has appeared in the anthology Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call (Vintage Entity Press, 2013),HIV: Here and Now Project, Yellow Mama and The Operating System.

the weak slim margins of impossibility: Robert Gibbons on Bob Kaufman

kaufman-reading-76-winans

“Sing love and life and love
All that lives is Holy
The holiest, most holy of all.” 

In 2013 I wrote a poem to an African-American poet by the name of Bob Kaufman. Little did I know that the editors of this Dadaist-persuasive magazine called Maintenant 8 would publish this poem upon hearing me read it one night at Cornelia Street Café. Here is what I read:

so they forget about you
the beat generation of yesterday
Corso and Kerouac
Ginsberg and other insomniacs

maybe we do not belong
the weak slim margins of impossibility
maybe Mina Loy will write an epic
Of the tragic, the drug-addled

and the gay unicorn
the rainbow of fishnet stockings
so we hang around like dirty sneakers
over tight wires, cower to the establishment
punishment for the lonely

Although this is the first stanza of the poem that I dedicated to Kaufman, I was shocked that I had never heard of him. I thought I was well read and resourceful and so happen to rummage through some dollar books at Revolution Bookstore in Chelsea and ran across a slim volume of his collection. It is the only book of his I owned in my collection. So I held the weary, battered worn book or is it a chapbook? I am not sure what establishes a book from a chapbook. I think if it is less than twenty poems between two covers it could be a chapbook. It could have even been stapled, but it was not. It was a remarkable bind and find that held this small collection together. I was so grateful because I am always on the look out for the forgotten poet. The one as I state in line five: “ the weak slim margins of impossibility.” In this research I have considered eventually writing a biography to resurrect his spirit again. It takes a poet to know a poet. So far this is what I know.

Bob Garnell Kaufman was born in April 18, 1925. If Robert would still be with us today he would have reached his 90th birthday. There are rumors in the poetry circles that Lawrence Ferlinghetti is 96 and still giving reading at City Lights in the San Francisco area. Although I love everything Ferlinghetti, this essay is about Robert Kaufman. Robert Kaufman was born in 1925, a year of many world-changing events according to the World Encyclopedia. F. Scott Fitzgerald publishes The Great Gatsby, Adoph Hitler publishes Mein Kamp, the British explorer Percy Fawcett sends his last telegram to his wife and disappears in the Amazon, the city of Santa Barbara is destroyed by earthquake, the KKK is so popular that it boasts five million members, and is it is also the birth year of Malcolm X. So you see that great intensity that created him.

Kaufman experiments with the images, the metaphors, and streets scene that he witnesses”

His mother was a black Catholic and his father a German Orthodox Jew. As a child Kaufman took part in both religious experiences. No wonder romanticized biographies would describe him as a “griot, shaman, saint, and prophet of Caribbean, African, Native-American, Catholic and Jewish traditions.”  But why minor? I entitled this essay, “the weak slim margins of impossibility.” Certainly Kaufman would not be considered weak physically, being the tenth of thirteen children. But slim, weak, and impossible among his bohemian contemporaries. According to the editor of Beatitudes, Kaufman is credited by some as coining the term  “Beat, as in Beatnik-as in Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.”  Certainly, Robert Kaufmann does not have the same name recognition as his Beatnik brothers.

Maybe Maria Damon can give us some clue when she says, “his biographical status as stereotyped Beat legend and overlooked Black poet complements.” He is a forgotten. He is lost to the historical register like many other male and female, black and white; gay and other persuasions of this critical period in our history but somehow Kaufman endured. In his poem, “ West Coast Sound-1956,” Kaufman experiments with the images, the metaphors, and streets scene that he witnesses. He uses his poetic eye to witness his time when he says:

Now, many cats
Falling in
New York cats
Too many cats.

Cat is a term used to express his brother. This does not necessarily mean they are related. It means there are certain struggles that the street poet, the oppressed poet, or the marginalized poet endures. Rather than address the electoral, protest, or even the literary political in traditional ways, his elusive and allusive writings as  well as his tragic comic life sustains a critique of the subtle rules and terrible punishments. We can see some of this elusion and allusion in his poem “Benediction” when he makes the declaration:

America, I forgive you…….. I forgive you.

He repeats the declaration as to say I have witnessed the degradation. I have witnessed the terrible and the unjust, but I forgive you. If there is any way to make peace with myself in the midst of all this insanity. The race riot, the murders, and the insurrection, I will still have to forgive because I need to be in peace with myself. All of his writing was not gloom and doom. In his poem “Fragment,” he begins to question as most of us do. It is almost the way we question our writing. The way we question our sustainability as poets turned writers. If you are a race man then you have to make a decision especially during this period of history. There were probably many poets of color that exist but did not break through to the establishment. There are not many prominent examples we can consider. So we must consider Robert Garnell Kaufman among those that come as close as you can get. Amiri Baraka had not established himself as a prominent radical poet.

“America, I forgive you.” This is an anthem that runs like a tectonic plate that run like a hot wire in the writing of Kaufman. He was not without his political affect as a self-described underground poet. In his famous poem,  “Abomunism.”  Maria Damon defines this term for us. She says the term “abomunism” would be Kaufman’s contraction of, among other things, communism, the atom bomb, Bob Kaufman and abomination. Is serious in its black humor.  Was Kaufman being humorous or serious when he says in “Benediction”?

Pale brown Moses went down to Egypt land
To let somebody’s people go.

The Egyptian captivity has always been used to describe the black plight in America but if we look closely at the first line in “Benediction.” The term “pale brown” may be a bit of black humor. As to describe I am aware of color. The privilege of race and even within the races there exist caste system that tends to conquer and divide.
Kaufman’s case illustrates a certain political and social position in a historical era. I can hear the Abomuist manifesto in my ears as he list societal ills as he witness them. As a man of color and a poet of color he is very sensitive to national and even international issues.

Abomunist  do not write for money, they write the money itself.
Abomunist never carry  more thatn fifty dollars in debts on them.

So this is the case in point for Kaufman. He was a man of his time. His legend relegated to the underground, not exclusively there. He did have a cadre of Bohemian brother that probably protected and supported him as much as they could. I am not sure how much as I scoured the letters of Ginsberg and Kerouac. Here is a portion of a poem he did write to Ginsberg:

Ginsberg won’t stop tossing lions to the martyrs.

In my opinion, he admired Ginsberg. They all knew that Ginsberg was a leader of the pack. They probably retreated or consulted each other in their midnight communions here in New York City where he and Ginsberg spent a great deal of time. He said, New York cats. So, Ginsberg, Corso, and Kerouac where a part of those New York Cats.

They probably retreated or consulted each other in their midnight communions here in New York City”

That day I found Kaufman in the bottom of a crate of one dollar used books in the basement of Revolution Books. Certainly Revolution tried its best to be on the edge with the writers it ascribed to from the Black Panthers to Amiri Baraka. I certainly did not know the power in which I held. This is the reason we resurrect any poet that has fallen by the way side. There is not much written in the text to fully compensate for a life lived. But to be discovered like Alice Walker did for Zora Neale Hurston. I do not think listing his death date or even where he died is important but we need to know fully the man that went underground. The poet that lived from his perspective, full of subtext, plot and subterfuge. I am excited on the slim margins of impossibility. There is hope in these slim margins. Even in my own literary ambition it is left over to something else. How far will I go and who will know. We will never know or even care to know if that is the ambition to be a famous poet of color. The ones that did break the veil, if there is such a thing -good for them. In the final words of Kaufmann:

Sing love and life and love
All that lives is Holy
The holiest, most holy of all.

Robert Gibbons received the 2016 Norman Mailer Prize for Poetry. (Malibu) He has been published in: Maintenant Dada Anthology, Turtle Island Quarterly, Suisun Valley Review, Fruita Pulpa, Black Earth Institute, Promethean, Killer Whale Journal, Brooklyn Poets, Brownstone Anthology, Riverside Anthology, and so many online anthologies, journals, and others to numerous to enumerate. His first collection, Close to the Tree, was published by Three Rooms Press in 2012. Presently he is completing his MFA at City College in Harlem.

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