On Bruce Conner (may he rest in peace) and Assorted Kansan Cohorts

A Memorial and Memory Lane Meditation, by Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore, 2008

Bruce Conner, November 18, 1933 - July 07, 2008
Bruce Conner was an enigma, to me at least, as a person and somewhat as an artist, but in the 60s in San Francisco, I was acquainted with a number of the Kansas artists, graphic and poetic, that made such an impact, sometimes in enigmatic ways, on the basic and pervasive artistic milieu, as well as giving the so-called "counter-culture" its, well… culture.

The list includes Conner, Michael McClure, a poet who had enormous presence, and who actually lived up one of the streets from the Haight-Ashbury district during its high heyday; David Haselwood, who with Andrew Hoyem was running the Auerhahn Press (with printer Glenn Todd, another Kansan), that published the major poets of the time and in editions that also ran some of the major artists (Bob LaVigne among them); Bob Branaman, prolific artist of comic-book-like epic mandala drawings in mural-like vertical space, and whose crammed ecstatic profusion of beings, nakedly human and otherwise, seemed to extrude from the darkest maw of creation; Charles Plymell, tough diamond-in-the-rough poet and wild man friend of the Beats and living on Gough Street at his crossroads apartment (and who published a group of the Kansan and Beat poets - and me - in a bright neon red or green chapbook called, modestly, NOW).

And then a handful of the “next generation” of poets (born around 1940, me on July 30th), including David Omer Bearden (www.davidbearden.com), not originally from Kansas (a Californian) but a student at the University in Tulsa, Napoleonic leader-like poet and critic of everyone else (he seemed to dislike my poetry, and insisted on calling Neal Cassady, who was also everywhere but not from Kansas, "Dean Moriarity" in public, to his annoyance, yet I think they became friends) (though I will admit I don't like my poetry from this period much either, so he was probably right… he didn't like its basically sunny, ecstatic nature, but I have to say that I never had a single “bad trip” in all those years), and I was very sad to learn that he has passed away; Alan Russo, a gentle soul (who took LSD one day in the country and wandered naked into someone's house suffering from thirst but was just able to say over and over the Latin word “Aqua” until they called the cops and had him hauled away); and J. Richard White, elegant almost Victorian and certainly romantic in his sensibility (and always it seems with wife troubles). Where are they now? Michael McClure is alive and well (I pray) in the hills of Oakland with his lovely artist/sculptor wife Amy Evans; Dave Haselwood, like Philip Whalen, became a serious Zen Buddhist and is now an ordained Zen bishop I believe along the California coast somewhere; I've heard of and seen a recent photo of Branaman (miraculously having reached elder status in spite of the amounts of drugs - especially Percodan - he ingested); Charley Plymell (The Benzedrine Highway Interview) has also reached legendary elder Beat poet status, and a book of his collected poetry is available as well as memoirs and other writings. But the others I've lost touch with, though they may be orbiting in the mist somewhere as productive as ever, but less well known, by me at least.

All of these artists had a kind of American Gothic quality which I associated with the midwest Bible Belt ethos from Kansas - Wichita (of the famous Vortex), Tulsa, Kansas City, Lawrence, etc. and many were iconoclasts of the highest order, making high art as well by the inspiration of their visceral resistance plus a deep ocean of creativity that also had a private, enigmatic cast. The strength of their iconoclasm seemed to reach religious intensity, often true with the intellectually and poetically resentful, coming from a strictly “religious” (not necessarily spiritual) part of the world or country, and fleeing it and its influences as powerfully as possible - a manic reaction to the straight-laced and oppressive fire-and-brimstone midwest morality.

Conner was among them in this loose regional fraternity, contemporary with McClure and Haselwood, with whom I believe he grew up and attended school, and whose creations always disturbed, such as the combines he showed in the 60s made mostly of dripped brown wax and viscous looking goos that somehow shuddered us down to the soul. (I vividly recall Conner's exhibit of combines in San Francisco, both elegant and grotesque, dolls in gluey webs on high chairs, things enveloped in nylon stocking pulled tight and daubed with brown wax, all somehow evocative of a scream of despair, calling out for a human response.) But Conner also created a spiritually elevated art, such as those gloriously and spectacularly rendered mandalas (miraculous, actually - how did he do them? Well, while good and truly stoned no doubt…) one of which appeared in the San Francisco Oracle (I thought there were more, but checked on that huge Allen Cohen Oracle compendium and found only one, plus a magnificent Conner collage, though now I seem to remember a printed portfolio of a large series of these gorgeously complex and even-more complexified mandalas that I may have seen at McClure's house back then), and somehow tapped into what we were all psychedelically seeing at the time, each one vibrant with intricate light, inhabiting a pure universe of almost pre- or inter-form scintillation (that place between the fiat! of creation and actual manifestation, however you wish to theologize it).

His films were also impactful and artfully inartful, in the Stan Brakhagesque cinematic aesthetic of the time, with quick shots of almost nothing or a detail of something (often natural, often not) going past at high speeds, or collage-like images that make sudden meanings when juxtaposed, and whose only narrative would be supplied more by the viewer than the filmmaker (a film of Conner's on YouTube is an excellent example). His collaboration with Terry Riley, the ever-ecstatic master composer from California, with images of the atomic bomb blasts in his film Crossroads is exemplary in its timeliness and Conner seemed to find the Atomic bomb explosion an endlessly symbolic (and utterly realistic) consciousness-changer for his, ours and (should be) all later generations. And his film, Looking for Mushrooms, is filled with really gorgeous imagery in sync rhythmically with Terry Riley's music on keyboard and saxophone. This is all memory to me, however, and I have no knowledge of his more recent work, nor an entire overview, as I wasn't able to visit his more recent Art Retrospective, said to be such a vast range of work of all kinds as to be uncategorizable. This is my own personal experience from his (and the others') San Francisco work of the middle 60s.

Conner's presence was also very much of a piece in some way with his artwork. I rarely heard Conner speak (I was not in the inner Kansan circle, and hadn't grown up with him as McClure and Haselwood had, who both had enormous respect for Conner's art), but I often heard him play the harmonica, at Be-Ins, at Acid-Tests, which he seemed to do in lieu of speaking anyway, and was probably mostly stoned as well… but so were we all. Lanky, even slightly wraithlike then (lengthy illness apparently made him truly wraithlike in this last years), he seemed to be one of those souls who was kind of everywhere and nowhere at once, popping up almost comically, like Petrouchka, with a parallel poignancy.

McClure was, it seemed, the most “disciplined” of them all, writing his poems both on the run and in long hermit-like retreats in his house on the hill, and I lament his seeming neglect by today's literati, for he is a true innovator and inspired poet in the timeless Shellyan mold, especially with his explosive first Evergreen book, A New book/A Book of Torture, and those amazing Ghost Tantras (his getting the lions to roar with him in the San Francisco Zoo's Lion House while he chanted Ghost Tantras may be up there with Duchamp's Glass of the “Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even”), as well as his more Mozart-like later imagistic nature-focused minuets, still filled with that now soberer (perhaps) but incisive energy. His latest Zen and haiku-like poems are also still velveted with an original “gothic” impulse, as well as being both Basho-like and truly transcendent.

Outsider (not New York exactly, not even quite San Francisco, though becoming West-Coastized by lengthy involvement — even environmentally concerned - McClure's Poisened Wheat, etc. - and on the “scene” ubiquity as well as by that great visionary leveler: psychedelia), maverick and somehow invisible in a Burroughesian way, striking here and there and then disappearing, the Kansans (and now in memorializing Bruce Conner, God bless him, him in particular at this moment spotlighted), came out of the corn belt, the vast flatlands of America, and brought from weird and wonderful innermost depths a wry occult splendor to our art and to our lives.

(This is mostly off the top of my head, though with some “research” to amplify my aging memory, and I apologize for misrepresentations or factual errors, and would be open to any emendations. My own website: www.danielmoorepoetry.com, and poetry blog: www.ecstaticxchange.wordpress.com, is available for “character reference.”)

Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore: Born in 1940 in Oakland, California, his first book of poems, Dawn Visions, was published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books, San Francisco, in 1964, and the second, Burnt Heart / An Ode to the War Dead,in 1972. He became a Sufi Muslim in 1970, performed the Hajj in 1972, and has lived and traveled throughout Morocco, Spain, Algeria and Nigeria. He has been living in Philadelphia since 1990 with his wife and family. His books include: The Ramadan Sonnets, The Blind Beekeeper, Mars & Beyond, Laughing Buddha Weeping Sufi, Salt Prayers, Coattails of the Saint, Underwater Galaxies, The Music Space, etc. Full list on his website and blog. He continues to give many public readings during the year, often accompanying himself on specially tuned zithers.

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From a Perpetual Novel*

by J. Richard White

David was brilliantly angry, caught somewhere between civilization and barbarism. He was a scholar and a lunatic, and maintaining a relationship with him often involved exercising enough grace to avoid a fist-fight. Sometimes, there was nothing either the most gracious or most cowardly of us could do. He would challenge even his closet friends, among which I was counted, on both trivial and metaphysical issues, issues ranging from the color of a dead poet's eyes to whether Pound's use of Chinese ideograms was truly effective. Despite the physical risks, though, all David's friends cherished their friendship with him.

He was committed to the job (and he did consider it a job) of being a free poet; he did, what many of us did but most could not: he put his life where his heart and mind were. It was not possible to disrespect him; it was just sometimes difficult to avoid being attacked by him. But liking David was also a job, not a social pleasure. To be David's friend required hard work. He demanded the toil.

I met David in Tulsa around 1959. Both of us were enrolled in, but not engaged in, the Tulsa University so-called literature program. Our Participation involved occasionally attending a lecture, not to learn but to ridicule, and attending every bohemian social function we could find. We kept fairly good relations with the faculty, we just didn't do it durning class. We preferred to see the professors with their pants down.

Several of our college classmates at T.U. eventually made names for themselves, most just before they died of drink or other excesses or excuses. I won't mention their names becasue they have already received more fame than they deserve. I knew them only because they were present on campus, because they pretended to be poets, a pretension they were finally able to sell to the New York School in the 70's, although they never sold it to us. David and I, on the other hand, never tried to sell anything to anyone. A salesman is an it that stinks excuse me please, cummings observed, and I, coming from a background of male-limited salesmanship, heartily agreed. I suppose David's inconsolable nature could also be explained, in part at least, by some similar background. I was never certain about David's backround, but I assumed it was infuriating enough to produce his righteous rage. At least there was something that tied us together and it didn't feel like love, but it may have been. And it might have been mutual hate of the mundane. Certainly, we were connected by mutual hatred of the sober drudgery of the disciplined poets who traveled from Tulsa to New York City in the early 60s. There was nothing really disciplined about us. And David was far less manageable than I.

I think I wanted David to like me more than he was able to demonstrate. But he was so critical of style and intellect, that it was difficuly to please him. I was always surprised when he showed any appreciation, although he probably did so much more than I remember. There was evidence that he knew me better, liked me better, than he could ever express. The evidence was odd. Sometimes it involved his perfect memory of something I'd said, or something I'd written. Such evidence was usually countered by an enraged attack over some seemingly insignificant issue. Sometimes over no identifiable issue at all…

…So, although I never felt I got what I wanted from David, I often felt I got everything I needed. If this is all he was to show me, it would've been enough to consider him an interpersonal saint. But there was more…

* Soon to be a major motion picture


by Dion Wright, excerpt taking from page 57

…In the natural course of things, we went down to Big Sur a couple of times to visit Branaman and family. I was still somewhat foolishly in awe of Bob Branaman for his unwavering commitment to doing everything HIS way. He was winding up, at long last, his work on FUX Magascene. It's hard to imagine how he put that chapbook together in the mud and grunge of his Anderson Ridge quasi-yurt, but he did. Susan had changed her name slightly to Sue Sun, and lived up to it. How odd to look at this pampered child of privilege so happy in the Stone Age. She did glow, no doubt about it. Maybe she had always glowed. Probably. My wife, although she looked like Elizabeth Taylor, never glowed. By then, in fact she absorbed energy like a black hole. I noticed that Bob looked her over pretty appraisingly, like an old horse trader checking out a young filly. I wouldn't have been surprised if he'd folded up her lip to assess her teeth.

Jane Chipmunk accompanied us on the trips to Big Sur. She remained attached to Branaman with a strong bond, from her side at least. I continued to believe that junk was the glue. One time when we got there Bob was feeling “icky poo”, as he put it, and was testy because Cosanyl cough syrup was being put on the prescription list. He had stacked up a few cases of it, but the end was in sight. The deal on Cosanyl was that it contained a derivative of lettuce which had a narcotic effect. The ingredient was condensed. One would have to eat a couple of truckloads of lettuce to get the amount of pain-killer in one bottle of cough syrup. Hooks. I still didn't see why anybody would pursue addiction.

Bruce Conner had been making some noteworthy art films which had generated a certain degree of chatter on the circuits. One of them, Cosmic Ray, featured Bob Branaman's ex, Beth Pewther, and another featured Janie Chipmunk. One or the other of them was doing a wild and out of focus naked dance to Ray Charles's Shake That Thing. Bob Branaman, not wanting to let any moss grow on his creative schtick, also had started filming. He had a silly little 8mm camera that he took everywhere, and used with the same approach that he brought to other media. That is, he tried to be as random as possible, never looking through the view-finder, and pressing off film in a spontaneous way from any imaginable angle. He supposed that something would emerge from this unconscious method which would have artistic value. I was with him in a downtown San Francisco elevator one time when he was seriously frightening the be-suited folks in there with us by whirring his camera into their noses, ears, arm pits, down onto the tops of their heads. As is the mode in the City, nobody said anything nor made eye contact, but those eyes were bulging and rolling in an amusing way.

For some unknown reason, Lawrence Ferlinghetti had joined forces with Bob to make a movie called Goldmouth. I was their chauffeur around San Francisco for a few days during the making of that film. Ferlinghetti must have been fascinated by Bob I suppose. He was a writer, after all, and he had a script, abstract and non-linear as it may have been. Within whatever structure implied there, he and Bob sort of felt their way around the city for spots to film in, bearing with them that gold mask which gave a center of some sort to the project. They didn't talk much, except to say stuff like “Turn left at the next corner”, to me. I thought it an interesting experiemnt, and God knew what kind of a creative summit meeting of personalities, but in the end, a really dumb movie.

Alan Russo was in town, and I saw him from time to time where he was staying at David Omer Bearden's place. As I disclaimed, my sense of poetry is marginal, but I did think that Dave Bearden was brilliant, and by far the best poet in sight. That was a place where great and intelligent conversation happened, and where I met Neal Cassady. Neal was a connoisseur of good talk, which he seemed to regard as a contact sport. Once he had the ball, it was hard to get a word in edgewise. I didn't even try, although Cassady kept looking at me and making those multi-level remarks that could be interpreted in a number of ways. He made several references to “that German thing”, which he could probably infer from my physiognomy. I was still pretty down on the Germans in those days, and found the association discomfiting. Whatever that may or may not have ultimately meant in the cosmic scheme of things, on the mundane level I ended up in the absurd role of driving Neal Cassady, one of the world's legendary drivers, around San Francisco…

Copyright 2011 by Dion Wright. Used by permission.

English Professor Reviews 'Censored Review'

Columbia Daily Spectator
by Angus S. Fletcher, Assistant Professor of English

…No, the most accomplished poem here is the one that caused most furor (underground furor, now erupted), Bearden's “The Desk is a frozen sea.” The verse is refined and ingenious, full of carefully controlled off-rimes and assonantic effects. A strict stanzaic form gives order to the whole. One simply accepts the idea of the poem, that the creative process, in this cosmic instance, is a pain narcissistic exertion. I remember thinking the same thing when, as a child, I came upon a cow that had died while her calf. also dead, was being born. They lay in the middle of a field, a tangle. I think there is truth in these occasional visions of birth pain. Whether poets should publish their visions is a question I leave to others. But in the case of this poem at least I can see that its seriousness could hardly be doubted. If the author thought, having written it, "that's pretty wild." he would only be manifesting the typical wonderment of poets, who are inspired authors. I would rather not describe this poem. Its tone may be wrong. If that is true, then let rhetoricians discuss it; but let us not censor poetry on account of its rhetorical failures. Or at least let us admit that we may be unconsciously invoking the concept of decorum…

The desk is a frozen sea
and he strains to sing about time and age
alas his heart will break in three
and a line trickles out onto the page:

"ed egli avera del cul fatto trombetta."

Dante, INFERNO, Canto XXI

He dozes and dreams for miles
of white sea-ice, which he must limp across
needing badly to ease his bowels
knotted like frozen clods. So soon he squats
in an embarrasing wind
baring himself, and saying, "let me shit.
O God, why do you make me whine
in pain for any birth?" The place he sits
is terrible ice, and coldly
cut by the thin wind which does not sing.
So straining and hurt at that pole
he makes one tortured turd which tears and hangs
bleeding into the blank snow
It lives! It is strung with throbbing black veins!
He touches it and whimpers: "O
God, this horror twined with my own membrane
is shame! Pain with no defense!
I take from my pack my critical knife
and sever this experience,
of which I'll never speak, if I survive!"

- David Omer Bearden


November 1, 2010

The White Dove Review

by Joshua Kline (excerpt taking from article)

Over the course of the White Dove's five-issue run between '59 and '60, Padgett and company continued to showcase a distinguished mixture of lauded artists from New York and abroad (Ginsberg, Blackburn, Dawson, Major, LeRoi Jones, Simon Perchik, Ron Loewinsohn) along with a select core group of homegrown writers, painters and poets, including John Kennedy, Bob Bartholic, Dave Bearden, Paul England and Marsha Meredith.

Another Tulsa poet on board with the White Dove was Ted Berrigan. A patron of Lewis Meyer, Berrigan submitted work to the journal through the slot of an old cigar box that Padgett normally used to collect payment for the paper.

The coalescing, creative partnership between the three editors (Padgett, Gallup, Brainard) and Berrigan was particularly important during this period. Berrigan, whose work would eventually be considered “a fact of modern poetry” by Frank O'Hara, became a driving force behind the publication of the Review. At 25, the worldly TU student acted as an elder statesman and mentor to the fledgling editors behind the journal, and Padgett in particular was enamored with what he described during a speech at TU as Berrigan's “irresistibly romantic” and “glamorously outsiderish” persona.

“Even though he had not yet become 'Ted Berrigan,' he was already very different from Tulsans, more expansive and with a larger sense of humor,” Padgett said. The White Dove Review only ran for a year, but in that time the four young men became entrenched in Tulsa's art scene. “There really weren't very many outsider poets and artists in Tulsa in the 1950s, which meant that we tended to huddle together, despite our differences,” Padgett said. “The relationships tended to be intense, sometimes competitive.”

They mixed with the student cutters of TU's Nimrod (of which Berrigan was an editor), hung out at coffeehouses, all-night diners, and the jazz club Rubiot (where a trembling Padgett gave his first public reading) and congregated at the house of John and Betty Kennedy on 6th and Peoria. The Kennedys were 30-something artists whose always-open home acted as an important point of convergence for a handful of Tulsa bohemians. They held frequent parties for their friends and transformed a wing of their home into a multi-purpose artist exhibition and work space dubbed Gallery 644.

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Vol 3, Issue 13 July 1, 2012

Bearden Unbound — Poet David Bearden found
his voice beyond the Tulsa School.

by Robert Dumont (excerpt taking from article)

“I wonder if Dave Bearden still dislikes me.”
—Ted Berrigan, The Sonnets LXXVI

David Omer Bearden was born in 1940 in the brawling desert town of Blythe, California, where his parents had settled as part of the Depression-era Okie migration. In and out of trouble in his early years, at age 14 young Bearden was sent to Riverside County Juvenile Hall for stealing a car along with another boy and driving it 200 miles to Eloy, Arizona. He subsequently spent a year at the Elsinore Naval and Military Academy. While in detention in “juvie,” where beatings administered by the guards were a rite of passage, and during his time at military school, he cultivated a love of reading and in his own words "discovered poetry." After turning 16, he went to live with an older sister and her family in the town of Mangum in southwestern Oklahoma and completed high school there.

In the summer of 1958, Bearden enrolled at the University of Tulsa. He met a local girl named Judy Brownfield in an English class taught by Beaumont Bruestle, and they were soon a steady couple. Judy found David to be “intelligent, dashing, charismatic, funny, charming, and handsome … and very well read,” even if he did tend to “pontificate grandly on almost any subject” at places like the Elbow Room and other off-campus hangouts.

He also became friends with Ted Berrigan, an upperclassman majoring in English, who shared his interest in poetry and the writings of the “Beats,” and both began to publish their own poems in Nimrod, the campus literary magazine. Following a memorable encounter with Ron Padgett in the Lewis Meyer Bookstore, the two of them contributed poems to The White Dove Review, the avant-garde literary magazine Padgett edited and produced along with his fellow Central High School students, Joe Brainard and Dick Gallup.

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