Friday, October 15, 2010

Jack Powers, 1937-2010

Jack Powers reading D.H. Lawrence, October 26, 1987.

On Thursday, October 14, 2010, the Boston poetry scene one of its elder statesmen, albeit a troubled and sometimes difficult elder statesmen. This hasn't been the first time I've devoted space to the passing of an artist who has influenced me (and probably won't be the last) but this is not the most pleasant of remembrances. I'm only glad that I had a chance to make peace with Jack Powers while he was still alive.

Much of what follows is not flattering but it's an essential part of the story. If you are looking for a hagiography, please look elsewhere. Outside of rumors and clichés, I am mostly limited to the two years and several months during which I was most closely affiliated with Jack. These two years were, in many ways, the beginning of a decline of a proud man who had done much to nurture poetry.

Jack Powers biggest influence on poetry scene was as founder and long time host of Stone Soup Poetry an open mic he started in 1971 as part of the Beacon Hill Free School. Jack was an evangelist for poetry: encouraging everyone to read, write, and speak poetry. Some of this early history would be recounted in a 1999 interview with ArtsEditor:

So we're sitting around this place saying: what can we name this place that will fit anyone? One of the suggestions was "Cakes and Ales," just because it sounded cute. And I said: well we won't have cakes or ales, so I don't think that's gonna work. Then I remembered this English folk tale. I thought "Stone Soup"—whatever you have to put in the soup is what it is.
Stone Soup would outlive the Beacon Free School and move from one venue to another, and by the time I walked into a Stone Soup reading in the fall of 1999, it was located at the old Zeitgeist Gallery on Broadway and Norfolk in Cambridge. I was already a cocky "spoken word artist" reading at alternative art spaces and loft parties in between bands. I most certainly over estimated my abilities as a writer at the time, but Jack liked what I was doing and took me under his wing, suggesting I read certain poets (Ed Sanders and Gregory Corso are two who would become favorites), sometimes impulsively giving me hosting duties for the night, and encouraging a listening attitude that allowed me to grow as a writer.

However, there was a dark side to this story. Many old-timers on the poetry scene will say that the high point in Stone Soup's history was during it's 1990s stint at T.T. The Bear's. Others will say it was the 1980s at Charlie's Tap or the Green Street Grill. These were years when famed beats and bohemians like Corso, Ferlinghetti, Sanders, and Ginsberg as well as future Nobel Laureates like Seamus Heaney or Derek Wallcott, or future U.S. Poet Laureates like Robert Pinsky could be expected as features. Stone Soup had fallen on hard times, and much of that owed to Jack's increasingly obvious alcoholism. People who had known him for longer than I had, often had a vision of a man of dignity and compassion. Though his charisma was very much intact, by the time he took me under his wing he had begun to lose himself, and this was often why I was charged to take the mic.

In 2001 Stone Soup had moved from the Zeitgeist to the Middle East Downstairs. Even with a PA system, the room was simply too large for a weekly poetry reading. Only the biggest stars in poetry (or those with a gift for self-promotion) could fill a room that size. The fact that there was a bar in the room was also not good: though very few poets drank at readings, the bar was too much of a temptation, and often he would be too inebriated to handle the hosting duties.

There were some who were becoming concerned about the line of succession, and some of them perceived me as the natural protégé, and though I never wanted this role this talk certainly got back to Jack and by then no amount of apologizing could repair the damage that rumors had created. Things got worse when the management of the Middle East determined that after seven months, Stone Soup was simply too unprofitable to stay on their schedule. I don't know if this was ever communicated to Jack but Jack never told us. I intuited that our relationship with the Middle East was deteriorating and checked the schedule, learning that we had been replaced on the schedule with the Middle East's bread and butter: live music; those audiences were more likely to buy drinks.

By this time, I was part of the board of directors of the organization. In the face of the news, Jack was incommunicative. No one else knew what to do. I quickly found Stone Soup a new home at the Out of the Blue Gallery where, as of this writing, it remains, but I wasn't able to shake the accusations that I was "trying to take over." Over the next few months, Jack would often show up late to the reading, sometimes as much as an hour late, or not show up at al, often leaving me to host.

Finally, at a New Years' Eve reading to mark the end of 2001 and the beginning of 2002, Jack awoke from being passed out on the couch and launched into a long string of verbal abuse at me. This was only one aspect of the evening's unpleasantness as the featured poet and musician, had also decided to show up drunk for the gig, and was herself nodding off during her set (thankfully, this artist did quit the habit a few years later.) That was the point where it dawned on me that bohemia is often very willing to watch its finest citizens self-destruct in slow motion, almost as if it were a long-form performance art piece (and sometimes they would applaud.)

The following week, I quit. Stone Soup would go on without me. A long time denizen of the scene explained it simply: Jack had a pattern of finding himself a younger protégé and giving him more and more responsibilities until Jack finally grew to resent the help. I was not the first and I would not be the last.

My time was not a complete loss. In those years, I had learned a great deal about poetry, and made many friends. My friendship with William J. Barnum and James Van Looy began as a result of my time at Stone Soup led to my studying mime, and the formation of Cosmic Spelunker Theater. For James, who had been a friend of Jack's going back to the 1970s, this venture was a healing process for both of us.

Jack had come to one of Cosmic Spelunker's shows in 2003. I am told he had been moved by the performance, but he and I were unable to reconcile at that point in time.

Chad Parenteau, a friend going back to the spoken word scene of the late '90s, eventually took over the role of the youthful protégé. By this time, Jack had been in and out of rehab programs, but the addiction had lead to a series of strokes. The resulting brain lesions had seemingly killed Jack's addiction and his rage, but had also robbed him of his ability to speak and gesture with his face. Chad had taken it upon himself to repair the schisms that had occurred in the poetry scene over the years and repeatedly cajoled me into coming back.

This eventually happened in 2008, when Chad convinced Bill, James, and myself to reunite Cosmic Spelunker and perform at Stone Soup. Afterwards, the now silenced Jack expressed his appreciation with exuberant gestures. He had become physically very expressive in the years following the stroke. His need to communicate with the world and his refusal to close himself off from any art form had made him embrace mime: we made eye contact and I realized in that moment that all past feuds were over. Chad would have me come back the following year to perform Arlecchino Am Ravenous. Chad was called out of town for work, but I remember Jack thanking me after the show.

I saw him one more time after that when we both came to pay our respects to Brother Blue.

Good-bye, sir: I'm glad we were able to patch things up before the end.

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