Monday, April 30, 2007

The Soul of a Poet, Bob Kaufman

I first met the Beat poet Bobby Kaufman when I was a child. Bobby coined that word, "Beatnik," and SF Chronicle columnist Herb Caen made the word famous. My mother was a Beatnik artist and actress, always bringing strange people with cars home—for the ride.

We lived out in the wilds of West Marin in Forest Knolls with my grandmother, and if you missed the one commute Greyhound bus, you had to thumb a lift. So, I met all kinds of stranger folks (it was the '60s). Most of them I don't remember, but I'd never met a poet before. A black man that that. I only remember Bobby Kaufman's presence—we always called him Bobby, not Bob. I liked the way it rolled off the tongue. Filled the mouth and lips with a syncopated rhythm. I am sorry to say, there were no awe-inspiring conversations to record. Just his soft-spoken presence.

I remember the way he tilted his head like a crow, looking up our mountain, and the tall trees—as if in awe. You could see that he moved in a alien landscape, the City streets was his particular jungle. We stood outside leaning on the car as he drank in the West Marin landscape: tawny hills, dark oak and pine, sizzling crickets. I was pretty young and not much of a conversationalist so we just stood there—drinking it in.

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In 1983, Bobby moved to the river and attended our Russian River Writers’ Guild weekly reading series, where I was a coordinator. He'd stand up at Open Mike (we were at Leonard Matlovich’s pizza place, Stumptown Annie's) and when Bobby would quote long passages from poems like the Abonomist Manifesto, it left me completely in awe.

I was never too sure how much Bobby Kaufman was taking in, he was pretty far along in terminal burnout, the emphysema, the long distance toll of drugs coming home—but one could still see something within him burning still. The soul of a poet to the end. That image stayed with me.

The impetus of my poem, Mantle, is the results of two separate events converging on the page. One night, I was walking to my car from the BART station through Berkeley Park and I felt some presence following me. I saw Bobby sitting and reaching up to me in every darkened doorway from Martin Luther King Drive to John Oliver Simon's house on California Street, I spun around but there was no one there. The streets were empty. I couldn’t shake the feeling I was being followed. Or haunted. And Bobby Kaufman was heavy on my mind.

It was a week before I heard the news that he died, it was after the Challenger Space Shuttle had just blown up. The two events were synchronistically linked in my mind. I was teaching poetry at Mark West School, in Santa Rosa.

I was standing in the parking lot gathering art supplies for our pocket poem project. I was compelled to look up in the sky, From the corner of my eye, I saw something explode in the sky. It was like a large moon snail or a spaceship. I stared up at it in horror—not knowing what it was, but I knew it was bad, very bad indeed.

I looked up again. But there was nothing there. I wiped my eyes as if to clear my vision. It was just my wild imagination and a vast blue sky in want of a cloudy formation. Then the news came: the Challenger had just blown up. We were all stunned. Christa McAulliff was a cultural icon at our school. We all cried. The kids gathered around me like petals to a flower.

My poem, Mantle, became an open letter to the sky, an elegy to the memory of Bobby Kaufman and to the members of the Challenger Space Shuttle. The day I wrote the poem, I was with Rubén Martínez, a Chicano poet visiting from LA, my then boyfriend John Oliver Simon, and San Francisco's Beat Poet Laureate, Jack Hirschman—we were all sitting around the table knocking back caffe lattes at the Cafe Trieste in San Francisco. I recorded the date in my journal—it was Feb. 2nd, 1986.

I'd had a disturbingly long dream the night before where I was carrying rain across the night sky in rusted buckets, but it wasn't rain, it was the stars. We were talking of communism and of Latin America and all I could hear was the insistent voice of this poem coming through, seeking audience. I furiously scribbled something in my journal. Jack asked me to read it. I was stricken. Raw footage. I read it, Jack mused, and said, "Hmmm, a real poet, you're a real poet."  That was a real compliment—coming from Jack.

© 2007 Maureen Hurley