Poetry & the Punks


Call it a prose-poem, call it an essay, call it whatever you like. Or don’t call it but just read it, since labels are so often meaningless. By any name it is my definitive tribute to the closing night of P78, the first of many One World Poetry festivals and other international literary events organized by the late Soyo Benn Posset, impresario extraordinaire. And it is intended, for those who can manage it without losing any of the words the rhythm the sense the feeling, to be read very fast. Until right at the end, when you are meant to slow down, way down, take a long breath, and swallow deeply.

I’d been living in Amsterdam for several months already, writing, editing a magazine, imbibing large & sometimes near-lethal doses of the city’s legendary magic, a desk & telephone jockey under happy, maddening, utterly ballbusting house arrest in a crazy communal office on the Nieuwe Zijds Voorburgwal, wide tramlined thoroughfare bleeding vital commerce around the pulsing core of the mandala centrum, A’dam’s Fleet Street once upon a time, time when the harbor leaned hard into Dam Square & hustling newspapermen rushed around the corner to cop a scoop from docking seamen—captains, bo’s’ns, ships’ doctors, unloading their goods & their gossip onto waterlogged dry land while a dozen or more hungry hacks watched & listened & scribbled their half-fictitious tales, their pens feverishly skipping along as even now our typewriters clack; an office & not an office, more of a launch pad actually, a place in space where living theater was always right at home: writers & other media madmen, space queens, manic visionaries, flashy snowmen, musicians, magicians, visiting vagabonds & of course the usual complement of talented con artists, the scene of performances often so bizarre & played out with such ruthless intensity that only magical power centers like Amsterdam & Bali & some very few others can experience them, again & again, & still survive: the myths, the mantras, the psychedelic dreams & adrenalin nightmares, the creative energy spiral that can tease souls into delights of ecstasy or, without so much as blinking a cosmic eye, torture egos into nameless oblivion. And there I was, a willful outsider unwittingly plugged into the middle of it all, an itinerant New Amsterdammer scratching the poetic ants in his pants & riding a redhot rail that at each instant of unclockable time led everywhere & nowhere, riding, reasoning, even intuiting, but all the while holding on for dear life. And yet until that mad, murderous, mystical night on which Amsterdam’s first international poetry festival reached its moonstruck finale, I’d never set foot inside Paradiso.

Paradiso, gilded wedgestone of underground Mokum’s holy trinity: Melkweg, Kosmos, Paradiso. An abandoned church resurrected only ten years before from the dried ashes of decadent Christianity & converted, in the true spirit of Eastertime, into a temple of dope, revolution & the burgeoning quest for a new awareness. A temple now tarnished, as all temples are tarnished, scorched as all temples are scorched, camouflaged as all temples are camouflaged, hidden even from themselves under the cloying fallout of our suspended disbelief, a disquieting timebomb the Aquarian age has dropped in our midst as a necessary challenge to the inner faith with which we are born, the faith of flowers, of meteors & of galactic harmony.

The holy trinity. Melkweg, multimedia center, where New Age freaks go to dance, get stoned & fry their brains under the probing strobe lamps of unlimited diversion. A good place, especially great for the anticlimactic last readings of P78. “Are the people here always so laid back?” asked Lewis MacAdams. I answered him by rolling my eyes & laying back. Even Ted Berrigan was uncommonly audible, his shoppinglist poetry seeming tailormade for such a stoned reception.

Kosmos, meditation center, where if you whisper too loud you occasionally catch yourself wondering about it, happy hunting ground for macrobiotic freaks in search of the perfect vegetable. Also a good place. There, for five ever-quickening duckpaced days under a waxing moon a gaggle of mostly wellgroomed poets nursed their verses, polished their egos & quite unknowingly prepared for Armageddon.

Gysin & Burroughs, two formidable antipoets, surpassing all expectations with their mixed baggage of artistic tricks & leaving behind them an audience full of shattered nerves & wrecked but neatly tickled funnybones. Half the time I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry so I simply hung on & did neither or both or whatever. After only five minutes of the film Cut Ups I realized that if I stayed till the finish I stood a good chance of going insane. But I couldn’t leave. I think I survived but I’m not sure. The rest of the poets were good, even I was good, though Lewis MacAdams was better, much better. And Harold Norse, short, tough & in tight leather trousers, displayed a fine taste in boys. And fast-speaking Anne Waldman would have pleased me more had she spoken slower but I suppose that’s my business & not hers. And Ira Cohen, stronger in the Kosmos teahouse than he would be the following night at Paradiso, was deep, somber & as usual in the West, deeply misunderstood. The next night Patti Smith booed him when he put down Amerika. Fuck her, even if she is the greatest. And she is. Sweet princess of piss, kicking ass at the portals of paradise, I love her. And the rest of them, Lorenzo Thomas, Julian Blaine, Ricardo Sanchez, etc. Like Ira says, we’re all one poet really, writing one flawed but never-ending poem. And I know God loves us for it, no matter what readers may think or audiences.

Paradiso, the showdown with destiny no one asked for, no one knew was coming but which every single one of us more than deserved. Paradiso, resurrected temple turned palace for punks & blackjacketed speed freaks, now on this night shedding its tarnished image & becoming once again the apex of the triangle, the holy trinity, the top of the golden spear pointing straight at heaven & demanding an answer to our one great poetic prayer. At the very moment I stepped into the mad hall, 8 pm, 16 September 1978, the moon turned full. One hour later, when the first poets started to read, a lunar eclipse was just beginning. Yet our feet were planted squarely on the earth, for the sun was in Virgo. And thousands of miles away, in Egypt, The Grateful Dead were doing a stoned gig at the Great Pyramid in Giza. The stage was more than set. And you tell me this isn’t the Apocalypse? Hell, man, I’ve been around this universe a long time & I damn well know a Kali Yuga when I see one. This is it & Paradiso was one of its more spectacular celebrations.

The bigname poets read early, getting it over with before the trouble started. Patti of course knocked them dead, said everything was shit then went on to disprove it. After the previous night Burroughs & Gysin had nothing to add, they’d done their thing. Norse was strong, in good form. Berrigan was BEARable. Waldman spoke faster than ever but later on kissed me goodbye which made it all okay. But now the punks were moving in & by midnight were making a strong bid to take the place over, ahead of schedule. Herman Brood & his Wild Romance coming on at 3 am. Images becoming mixed, blurred, even kind of frenzied. Jesus Christmas, this ain’t no poetry audience, this is impending mayhem, Herman with a fresh needle hole in his arm heckling Hans Plomp by shouting the poet’s own lines back at him, inciting the punks to riot, even to murder for all I know, the Four Horsemen coming on like a nameless herd in short green & blue hair, cheap earrings & a thousand black leather jackets, Simon Vinkenoog somehow holding it all together, weaving impossible threads from one performing poet to another with the cranelike virtuosity of an accomplished wizard, weaving, cajoling, inveigling, finagling, reading his own poems & everyone else’s, long poems, short poems, French Dutch English German Swahili poems, poems with sounds & poems without sounds, poems that are indeed poems & poems that are no poems at all but incomparable raps, word raps, hand raps, raps of the eyeballs & raps of the nose, raps charged by joints & pipes & by dabs of white powder snorted off the end of a long slender finger or sucked into the lungs from a thin cigarette. And whatever the sources of Simon’s magic, his power, his unique style, it’s all very much here & now & highly effective, for even as the punks are becoming more unruly so the poets are growing stronger, sturdier, more self-assured, Harry Hoogstraten gripping hard the microphone & reading his fistful of fifteen poems goddamn you all whether you want to hear them or not, little Jessica Hagedorn jabbing her middle finger sharply into the air, looking dead in his blind eyes a heckler up in the balcony & telling him fuck you too before reading her poem, beautiful poem all about Manila & love & sadness & a million other wonderful things I can’t remember but wish I could because the feeling of that poem & of the voice that read it still churns around inside of me, reverberating against the ivory white walls of its own pure intentions.

And I too have now taken the microphone in hand & shouted hard anarchist lines down the throats of an audience half willing & half hostile, reaching out with love to the willing ones & enveloping the hostility with the clear knowledge that in this karmic age of destruction & plastic decadence, poets to survive must not only be good poets but strong poets, not poets nestled comfortably in ivory towers talking to the moon & the stars & to passing flocks of peaceful birds nor even merely to reasonable men & women who have chosen to listen, but poets prepared to mold their very words into tiny hand grenades & if necessary toss them verbally out into the world with the force of an infantryman standing at the front line of battle. And after the dust clears & the mushroom clouds disperse flocks of birds will again pass by, the moon & stars will once more reveal themselves & reasonable men & women will gather not to hear poetry but to live it & to bask in its manifold lyric blessings.

At 3 am, as planned, Herman Brood & the punks took over the hall & honored the age & the hour with the music of rage, violence & impending fire. Some of the poets joined them, delving deep into their own animal roots to bring forth the primeval rhythms that bind our bodies to the planet, dancing, rocking, expressing with swaying arms & gyrating pelvises the indelible beauty of boundless lust. But most of them went home, to hotels, houses of friends or to the Kosmos for a quiet vegetarian breakfast. The celebration was completed, the matched powers of black & white, yin & yang had confronted each other with drawn swords & unsheathed daggers. But the only blood spilled was the blood of wisdom, the wisdom of the Gita, of Krishna exhorting a fainthearted Arjuna onto the field of honor, the manifest battleground of universal necessity. This indeed was an apocalyptic confrontation in which the cosmic balance was perfectly maintained, even at the price of our own uncertainty.

“A pretty good night, don’tcha think . . . given the circumstances?” someone called out to Lewis MacAdams as the balding poet, looking a little bewildered, ambled off into the still-dark & balmy morning air.

“Isn’t everything circumstances?” he answered, but without looking back. Paradiso was behind him, behind us all. Yet the impressions it inscribed are forever, or at least they should be. For they can help make us what in truth we already are. And that, in one kind of tough nutshell to crack, is the story of Amsterdam’s special brand of excruciating magic. Heroic, bitter & absolutely uncompromising. I love it, goddamn it, even when it burns my toes & singes my eyebrows. And it does that just about every single day I am here.

© 1979, 2010 by Eddie Woods

Originally published in P78 Anthology (Mandala 1112; editors Harry Hoogstraten & Jos Knipscher) by Uitgeverij In de Knipscheer, Haarlem, the Netherlands (1979).