glimpses at poets and pubs dubbed underground

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I'll Tell You a Story Says Al Simmons to The Panda

The Baseball Fan

The memory
Of her funeral
Hangs by the window.

I look out at the sad,
Gray day
And I am remindful.

I lit a candle to commemorate
Her death
Three years ago, on
September 29, 2004,
A full moon night.

The moon is an urn
Of our ancestor’s ashes.

My mother died on the morning of Rosh Hashanah,
The holiest day of
The Jewish calendar year.

My mother was not religious,
And never celebrated holy days,
But, she was a Jew,
And proud
To be so.

She was also a life long Chicago Cub fan,
And held on
Until the Cubs
Dropped out of the pennant race.

Three years have passed and
Rosh Hashanah came two weeks earlier this year,
And the full moon
On September 26,
Not the 29th.

The Cubs
Continued to break hearts.

But the question is
Which day
Do I commemorate?
Which calendar?

I thought about it
And bought her a candle
That burned
For two weeks.

That way I covered all her bases.
She would have liked that.


Letter to the New York Times, June 5, 2009, 30 Years Later: Poetry As A Literary Sporting Event

When I graduated from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago in 1971, there were no poetry reading series in Chicago. None. And there hadn’t been one since Sherwood Anderson held readings in his living room in the 1930s and 40s, so any talk about Chicago being a “poetry town” since the turn of the 20th Century are dead wrong. The Blue Store Reading Series, which began in 1971, and hosted by myself, Terry Jacobson, Henry Kanabus, Stephen Pantos and Patrick McPhee, in a basement of an antique store on Wellington Avenue in New Town, began what is now seen as a literary renaissance in Chicago. Prior to the Blue Store Readings if you wanted to hear poetry read on a regular basis you had to travel to NYC. Six months after the birth of the Blue Store Reading Series, The Body Politic Readings began on Lincoln Avenue, and after that readings began sprouting up all over town and have been a growing phenomena since.

In 1979, I was poet-in-residence for the City of Chicago Council On Fine Arts. One early autumn night I was standing at the bar in Oxford Pub on Lincoln Avenue, when a reading that was taking place in a storefront next door spilled out into the street. Jerome Sala, a popular young local poet at the time, was giving a reading, when Jim Desmond, of the Jim Desmond Blues Band, was sitting in the audience and decided he didn’t like what he was hearing so Desmond picked up a chair and went after Sala. Somehow, they both ended up in front of me at the bar and I suggested, and they agreed, to put them in a boxing ring and let them beat shit out of each other, metaphorically speaking. I supply the rules and winner takes all. Thus was born the World Heavyweight Poetry Championship Fights.

Five years later, Marc Smith came up with an open reading format of the fights he named the Poetry Slam. Marc Smith has apparently added a name since then. I wonder if he got married? Smith deserves a lot of credit for what he has accomplished. To run a Sunday night reading series for 25 years is no small feat. But, I still retain my bragging rights. And to that end I will challenge Marc Kelly Smith to a one on one heavyweight poetry bout anywhere, anytime, as long as it takes place in a major population center somewhere on or near the Interstate 80 corridor.

Al Simmons, Commissioner WPA
(World Poetry Association)


I had a long conversation with a dove yesterday. I was washing dishes when the dove flew onto my deck by mistake. Their new nest is in the rafters outside my dining room window. She might have flown into the patio door screen, but she landed on a potted plant and seemed ok, but she didn't move so I walked over to take a look. My presence at the door didn't seem to alarm her so I slid open the door and said hello. Then I slid open the screen door. Still she didn't fly off. She just stood there, shifting around, trying to focus her eyes on me. So we stood there for a while. She was molting. She was gray with some round markings on her wings. Then she whistled quietly, like she was talking to herself, a yoo-hoo. So I you-hood her back. She was amazed and got really excited and began turning around in circles. I waited for her to whistle again and then repeated her call again. She got so excited she rustled her feathers and called to me again. This went on for some time. Then we ran out of things to say and she flew off and I went back to the dishes. A minute later the dove landed on my windowsill above the kitchen sink, tapped her beak on the glass and whistled to me. I whistled back. It was the most memorable conversation I had yesterday.


“For me there will always be an underground.” Al Simmons Speaks with Green Panda Press

Bree: u’ve met and mingled with so many respected poets—got any good remnants?

Al: I just remembered how I met Jack Michelin. It was 1982. I was new in SF and staying with friends. One day I was hanging out and ducked into a gallery opening for a free glass of wine and a piece of cheese and ended up buying a small stone sculpture from Jack Michelin. It was the face of a woman cut out of soapstone. I recognized Jack from a reading. I told him I liked his work but the last thing I needed at the moment was another rock to weigh me down. I didn't have a place to stay let alone hang his art. But he talked me into it. I wrapped it in a towel and hid it in the back seat of my car until I found a place to settle into. I used to hang it on a big weeping willow tree in the backyard. Now it's in a box. I just remembered where I got it. I wonder if it's worth any money?

B: take it out of that box! any j-hole will buy that from u—i think they’d buy his old dirty socks! but u still got a tree, i’d bet. well, so is there a particular contemporary poem or collection that u revere/left its mark on u?

Al: Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger is still the best poem of the 20th century. Something a lot of people don’t know, Ed Dorn wrote books 3 & 4 of Gunslinger in Chicago. I was studying with him during those two years. Ed published each book separately as he wrote them. Book Three, The Cycle broke the 5 x 7 format of books one and two by publishing book three in 10 x 12 inch size pages in bold print and full color. There was a character introduced in book three called Al, who looked a lot like me then. He had a belt buckle with the name AL printed on it. From Gunslinger: The Cycle, The I.D. Runs the Actual Furnishings, verse 19:

Below his right ear is the brand
The cuneiform form of Man and God
And these were the signs of his predicament.

I told Ed I thought that mark was a birthmark. But the truth is it was a hickey I was given by Rhea Hoffman who was 13 years old. I was 12. And it never went away, so maybe I was kissed by a goddess? She looked like a goddess at the time.

Studying with Ed Dorn was quite an initiation. I asked Ed why he made the print of the Cycle (first edition) so large? He said, so I could read it. He was a funny guy. He told me this in his kitchen, at the old 911 Club, the original 911 Club, 911 Diversey Avenue in Chicago, where Ed and Jenny lived while Ed presided over the writing program at Northeastern Illinois University on the northwest side of Chicago, where I was enrolled as an undergrad.

Being a named character in the greatest poem of the 20th Century is a nice credit. There were only four characters in Gunslinger who were introduced under cloak of their own names; Howard Hughes, Rupert Murdoch, Tonto Pronto, and me. Book Four of Gunslinger, The Winter Book was originally titled The Slaukowski Sausage Factory. In retrospect those years turned out to be Ed Dorn’s most productive.

B: i'd like to emphasize that you catalyzed the poetry bouts and poetry fights--you told me the story when we were in Berkeley, and its kind of in yr NYT letter---by the by the poem you sent me in the mail is so killer. it is so wholly your voice--i think that is what makes a poem good; if it is totally the voice of the poet, it cld be on microwaving frozen french fries, or crossing the rubicon, whatever. it is the voice that matters most. voice carries pov, and this is what we find useful in eachother.

Al: Thank you. There was an intellectual framework surrounding the fights. Let me tell you what the world of poetics looked like back in the early 1970s. When Ed Dorn left NEI for a job at Kent State, he replaced himself as poet-in-residence with Ted Berrigan, who at the time was head of the New York School of Poetry. So, I got to be student aide and faculty assistant for Ted Berrigan.

I’ll tell you a story. Ted didn’t know I was on the university payroll for being both his student aid and faculty assistant, and I didn’t tell him until one day after class several months into the semester Ted and I were sitting at the corner bar having a shot and a beer and I confessed. I applied to be Ted’s assistants because I knew he didn’t need any. He gave no assignments, did no research. That was pretty smart, Ted decided, and added, you can buy the next round. And then Ted borrowed $5. Ted always paid you back on payday when he cashed his check.

I guess you can say I was lucky, first to study with Ed Dorn and then Ted Berrigan, two of the top three poets of the second half of the 20th Century. You can say I had my share of rarified air. Ted Berrigan was 36 years old when Dorn brought him in to Chicago. Ted died young, at age 47. But, during the ten years that I knew Ted we became good friends, and I got to watch Ted develop from the head of the NY School of Poetry into a Master Poet. Ted grew larger than the scene. Hanging out with Ted was like seeing your best friend turn into Socrates. I was a man of great fortune and witness.

There were basically four schools of poetry being practiced in the 50s thru the turn of the century, and beyond. There were the academics, The Black Mountain School, The New York School and The Beats. I wasn’t interested in 15th century Italian sonnets so I passed on the academics. The Black Mountain School was Charles Olson, who invented Projective Verse and open field poetry as a meter into free verse. He gathered the teachings of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and brought them a step further. Teaching at Black Mountain with Olson was Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan. Ed Dorn was Olson’s student, favorite son, and 20 years later I studied with Dorn.

The Beats were mostly criminals, drug addicts, thieves, sexual predators and perverts. William Burroughs was a junky, a pedophile, and a murderer. He killed his wife. He shot her between the eyes with a rifle attempting to shoot an apple off the top of her head. Gregory Corso spent the better half of his youth incarcerated. Neal Cassidy was a car thief and a speed freak. Ginsburg was a pervert and Jack Kerouac was a bum, the Dharma Bum, who loved speed, beer, and chasing women and good times. Jack Kerouac was the writer. As Gregory Corso put it, “Kerouac made us all.” The Beats were bohemians and cultural revolutionists and are credited for a lot of bad poetry and starting the sexual revolution.

The New York School was somewhere in between. They were constructionists, though some called them de-constructivists. Ted’s favorite topic for lecturing was how he wrote poetry. I spent years listening to how Ted “made” poems. The NYS were better dressed than the Beats. They had Masters degrees, came from middle class families. But, to me they were all Beats. They all experimented with the same American idiom. Dorn ran with Kerouac. Berrigan introduced me to Anselm Hollo, Alice Notley, of course, Ted's wife, Allen Ginsburg, Phil Whalen. Everyone knew and supported everyone else...for the most part. Writers are and have always been competitive. Each had their own distinctive voice and style and that was the key, being your own person and having your own presence and style.

If you wanted to hang out with the giants you had to have your own voice. That was the rule. If you read a poem that sounded like someone else you either dedicated that poem or you would be called out and hauled off the stage. Maybe the hauling off the stage part was an early Chicago thing. What I was interested in back then was a Chicago sound, a Chicago School. Performance Art was a product of those early experiments in Chicago and we sometimes referred to Performance Art as Chicago School. By developing the poetry fights I captured a competitive spirit of the time and gave it a presence in literary form. I built the stage and wrote the rules. I was the Commissioner of the World Poetry Association and the World Poetry Bout Association, WPA/WPBA. Steve Rose, the world’s greatest ring announcer, introduced me as the intellectual godfather of the Taos Poetry Circus, in Taos, New Mexico, where we held the Main Event World Heavyweight Championship Poetry Bouts every summer for 20 years, from 1982-2002. I began the show. Now they call it The Spoken Word Movement. I’m a footnote in history.

As Ed Dorn once wrote:

“Once I lost my keys
and couldn’t get in
Once I lost my knees
and couldn’t get down
Once I lost my face
and couldn’t frown
But I’ve never lost my place
and that’s why dig it
I’m still around.”


The Main Event, a ten round heavyweight championship poetry bout, was invitational, based on a traditional reading, two poets, an opening act and a featured poet, each reads for thirty minutes. The slam is a competitive literary event based on an open reading, whoever shows up. Somehow the slam morphed into more of a community event rather than an individual’s art, drifting away from rule #1, having one’s own voice. That’s the rap on the slam since the beginning, actually. I have no problem with the slam. It’s an open reading. As far as I’m concerned I’m happy the slam is held to any standard. And look at how the slam has proliferated? I understand slams are now being held in 80 cities across the country. On the other hand The Main Event features the best of the best, always had and always will. Anyone can write a poem, but how many people can write ten?

B: How many poems have you written this past year?

Al: About 300.

B: That’s a lot of poems.

Al: I had a good year.

B: Are your poems available?

Al: Yes. Memoirs Of The Man Who Slept His Life Away, new poems, Special Edition, Books I - IV, 252 pages, 35K words, $35.00, (includes tax and shipping). Send cash, money order or check to: Al Simmons, Simmonsink, 420 Whitehall Road, Unit F, Alameda, CA 94501. I can be emailed at

B: hey, way to get a plug in! i’ll wrap us up with that goodie you mailed, and here’s hoping this one makes it in that collection.


Almost Never

I get lazier every day.
Doing nothing is the best.

Ok, there’s the ocean. I’ve
Seen it. Now what?
You tell me, cuz. Now

Lazy is good company.
Sunshine and enough
To eat helps.

Living off the land means
Fleecing those who graze.

Fleece or be fleeced.
Land of the fleeced,
Home of the flossed.

Other than my health
I’m fine.

I don’t know where I get
This stuff, but
For some reason I think
All I have to do
Is write a poem or two a day
And I’m good, I’m
A happy guy.

End of story.


Al Simmons catalyzed the poetry bouts (after he had himself an actual bout)---arguably the origin of Slam Poetry. he took me on a walk on a windy shore in Berkeley, CA where i saw for the first time red-winged blackbirds. it was late May 2008, and he thot my name was Bree 08 because that is how it appeared on the cover of a bittie broad i’d made. he’s…a happy guy.

* the integrity of line spacing was not kept by blogspot trans.

Books Available by Al Simmons:

Memoirs Of The Man Who Slept His Life Away, new poems, 161 poems, 252 pages, 35K words, $35, includes tax and delivery.

KING BLUE, Boogie Till The Roof Caves In, Stories of Chicago's Kingston Mines, the largest showcase blues club in the world, with photographs by D. Shigley. 129 pages, $20, includes tax and shipping.

"So lucid, fine, humorous and humane is Al Simmons' book, Boogie Till The Roof Caves In, that all one can say is: Thanks. And also wish that Mr. Simmons might write another book about more--if not all--of the scenes happening in our city." Paul Carroll, Publisher Big Table Press, Chicago Reader.

THE SUGAR AND OTIS CHRONICLES, People Pay A Lot Of Money For This KINKY STUFF, a pornographic novel, 275 pages, 75K words, $30, includes tax and delivery. "The most fun book I ever wrote, and the research was the best!"

Send cash, checks or money orders to Al Simmons, Simmonsink, 420 Whitehall Road, Unit F, Alameda, CA 94501.

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