To: The Membership and Interested Parties
From: Chinee, Grand Poobah, NBBPS
Subject: Prehistory, History, and Future of the NBBPS, Part One
THE NEW BLACK BART POETRY SOCIETY
Its Prehistory, History, and Future
A talk delivered on October 3rd 2012
by Grand Poobah Emeritus Pat Nolan
on the occasion of the inaugural meeting of
The New Black Bart Poetry Society
at Susan Ryan’s River Reader bookstore, Guerneville, CA
The story of The Black Bart Poetry Society begins almost a hundred and fifty years ago. On an early August day in 1877, a stage coach travelling from Fort Ross on the Pacific Coast on its way to Guerneville, a lumber town on the lower Russian River, was held up by a masked man with a shotgun. Reaching the site of the hold-up later that day, the local sheriff and his posse discovered the strong box empty with the exception of a scrap of paper upon which was written a poem which read, in part,
I’ve labored long and hard for bread
For honor and for riches
But on my corns too long you’ve tread
You fine haired sons of bitches
and was signed Black Bart, the PO8.
I had come across this tidbit of local lore a little more than a hundred years after the actual event while researching material for a project upon which an artist friend and I had embarked. Unfortunately, the brilliant idea for an illustrated local history came to naught. The idea of a stage robbing poet, however, stuck with me. I had even made a note to myself that a poetry society founded on such a premise would be quite a lark. I happened to mention this idea to my friend and literary associate from Oakland, Steven Lavoie, on one of his infrequent visits to the redwood wilds along the Russian River. I also related more of the story of Black Bart whose real name was variously given as Charles E. Boles or Bowles or Bolton. Bowles was finally captured after a nearly ten year career as a stage coach robber in Northern California and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. He was incarcerated in the then state-of-the-art prison, San Quentin. He served five years and change, and upon his release, the apocryphal story goes, the warden asked him if he was going to rob any more stage coaches to which Boles replied, “Sir, I am done with my life of crime.” The warden then asked him if he was going to write any more poems. Boles again replied, “I reiterate, sir, I am done with my life of crime!” Now this alleged conversation should be considered the defining moment for The Black Bart Poetry Society because two very important elements relating to the fledgling society are contained in this exchange, and to which I will return shortly.
The obvious question was of course what would be the function of such a poetry society, especially one named after a notorious Western bad man? I had the idea that perhaps staging poetry events in unusual settings might serve as its mission. Why not a large poetry event with poets, famous and unknown, from near and far, held at the amphitheater in Monte Rio or the one in Armstrong Woods Park, or, significantly, at the mouth of the Russian River accompanied by the barking of sea lions? Undoubtedly these were grandiose plans, but the early 80’s were grandiose if not desperate times, and if one had the energy and the ambition, just about anything was conceivable if not possible. My friend Steve liked the idea of a poetry society but added that any society worth its salt had to have a newsletter. Of course, a newsletter to announce its events! And gossip. And reviews of events. After all, hardly anyone reviewed poetry readings. And book reviews, but they would have to be kept short. I liked the idea of one-word book reviews, but Steve thought that we should allow ourselves a little more wiggle room and suggested we stretch the limit to one-sentence book reviews. And so it went, a pleasant afternoon spent in the country, drinking red wine among the redwoods. Then the fateful question, what would we name the newsletter? Steve barely hesitated. “Why, Life Of Crime, of course!” The huge significance of that moment held us in thrall for a good thirty seconds. But to top it off, the society needed a motto that more or less spoke volumes about its raison d’être. Interestingly, we found ourselves back in the warden’s office where Charles E. Boles, or Bowles or Bolton, the PO8 and the Society’s founding poet, spoke the denial that would become the name of our newsletter and the source of our motto, “for those who think poetry is a crime.” Of course the rest is recent history which I will recap shortly, but first a minor digression regarding the motto.
Why would a society ostensibly formed to promote poetry claim that it was for those who thought poetry was a crime? It is essentially counterintuitive, but perhaps that is the source of its appeal. We are in the realm of poetry, after all. When Black Bart speaks those somewhat historically dubious words it denotes an attitude toward that particular literary art that is uniquely American and uniquely Western. That writing poetry is a crime is a sly dig at the conventionality of the form and how badly it can be mauled as well as the recognition that the poem he left at the scene of his robberies (they were always the same poem) was doggerel and itself a crime. But consider why poetry might be a crime. First, the spurious syllogism, “Crime doesn’t pay, poetry doesn’t pay, therefore, poetry is a crime.” For one, crime does pay for some. Consider the big bankers and financiers who rob people with a pen. Also, for some, poetry, also done with a pen, does pay. Consider professor poets who rule from the ivory towers of academia and by their fiats, collectively or individually, determine what can be officially considered a poem or poetry. Poetry could conceivably be considered a crime if it falls outside of this relegated purview. Is the poetry written by poets unaffiliated with academic institutions criminal then? Are these poets outlaws? There is plenty of room for argument on this point, one to which I will return later.
A further point would be Mr. Boles’ anti-establishmentarianism, evident from the sentiment expressed in the hold-up poem. The poem itself is conventionally metered, boiler plate verse capable of being written by anyone in the mid-19th century with a literate education. Black Bart from all appearances was not a backwoods lout or back alley hooligan, but a man of refined sensibilities distinguished by, if nothing else, the silk handkerchief inadvertently left behind at the scene of a hold-up, which, because of the Chinese laundry marks, was the clue to his identity and which led to his eventual apprehension. The years after the war of secession were financially volatile boom or bust years and in some respects similar to our present situation. Again, it was the manipulation of banks and financiers who impoverished many. At the poem’s core is the stanza that reflects Black Bart’s sympathy with those who had “labored long and hard” (the working stiff) and upon whose “corns” (feet, backs) the “fine-haired sons of bitches” (bankers) had trod. And to get back at them, he availed himself of their money by interdicting its transport. Might not a poetry society named after Black Bart, the PO8, be expected to have a similarly jaundiced view of the establishment, in this case the poetry establishment?
Aside from the historical overview based on Black Bart, other factors determined the direction or the lean, as one might say, the Poetry Society was to take. First of all, you had two poets, Steve Lavoie and I, whose heroes were Marcel Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, and Groucho Marx. Marcel Duchamp was the French artist infamous for entering a urinal in the legendary 1917 Armory Show in New York City, titling it “fountain” and signing himself “R. Mutt.” His other succés de scandal was his painting, a masterpiece of discontinuity, entitled “Nude Descending A Staircase” and which one American newspaper wag dubbed “Explosion In A Shingle Factory.” Tristan Tzara was one of the founders of the Dada Movement in Zurich during the First World War and in Paris afterwards. Much can be said about Dada and the attitude it fostered in the early years of the 20th Century as well as its influence upon subsequent generations of artists and writers, but suffice it to say that audacity and outrage are adjectives most closely associated with it. And Groucho Marx happened to be, for the 20th Century, the most quoted Marx, certainly more so than that dour prophet of dialectical materialism. His pithy “never belong to a club that would have someone like yourself as a member” became one of the guiding principles of The Black Bart Poetry Society.
In the giddy aftermath of our brilliant idea and imbued with the Dada spirit, Steve Lavoie and I set about to turn the literary world on its head. Our imaginations would not rest. What started out as a lark cum hoax soon blossomed into a gigantic albeit imaginary enterprise that would include tee-shirts (black, of course), buttons (“the only good poet is a dead poet”), bumper stickers (“The Black Bart Poetry Society, for those who think poetry is a crime”), ball caps, a reading series, a heuristic Black Bart Poetry University, and so on. Unfortunately, none of the foregoing and potentially money making ideas ever got off the ground. The big productions, with the exception of two very notable events, never materialized. Life Of Crime, Newsletter of The Black Bart Poetry Society, took all of our energy and became what might be considered ‘paper events.’ Interestingly, the production of the newsletter was undertaken on the cusp of a communication revolution using the obsolete technology of mimeograph, but being poets we knew a little something about obsolescence.
Tune in next time for Part II of Past Present Future, a short history of The New Black Bart Poetry Society
New to the Society’s Bookshelf:
Mountain Home, The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China, translated by David Hinton (Counterpoint, 2002)
The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse, translated by Red Pine (Copper Canyon Press, 2014)
Prolegomena to a Study of the Universe & Other Prose Takes, Philip Whalen (Poltroon Press, 2014) This title is only available only through the website at poltroonpress.com
Microcosmos, The Art of Solo Renga, Jim Wilson (2014)