Thursday, June 4, 2015

From A Poet In Center City ('12)


Bill Rosenblum and I are still working together intermittently. Bill lives in a studio apartment on Twenty-First Street between Chestnut and Market. It’s filthy— Bill lives like a pig. But Bill already has a primitive Pro Tools set-up, which means he can record me cheaply and (somewhat) efficiently. I have a cache of songs I wrote in the spring of ’96— folk songs, in the manner of Nick Drake, for us to record. One thing I have now also is an album on, which I can add to. Bill and I maintain our own routine— record, smoke a little pot, repeat. Bill’s infinitely distractible, and I try not to be impatient. He even gets me to watch “Adult Swim” and “Space Ghost,” as I did as a teenager. The album doesn’t do much— I have a difficult time promoting it (having “offed” myself from doing live gigs in Philly). Everything feels liminal to me except Penn— it’s the new centerpiece of my life. College Hall, Van Pelt, Bennett Hall are golden for me; and I covet the armature of an Ivy League education. As I expected, Penn only transferred two years worth of credits from Penn State. Now, in my mid-twenties, I prioritize getting my degree. Christopher, Elizabeth, Bill, and the rest know this is happening— but my life is becoming strictly compartmentalized into bits which don’t always cohere. 


There’s a poetry reading circuit in Center City which I’m now heavily involved in. Other than the old guard and Christopher, some contenders subsist who are nearly my age. D.P. Plunkett is a rising star on this circuit. He happens to be ten years older than me. D.P. is bisexual, obese, and his poetry is all rough edges and dirty jokes. He, like most of the old guard, is a historical naïf where poetry is concerned— he’s read very little pre-1960. He also, as a high-school dropout raised out in the sticks, loathes U of Penn. It seems natural that we take an instant, intense dislike to each other. His sordid history with Elizabeth and Joe ended in rancor on all sides. I spot D.P.’s big weakness— he needs to be buffeted by people (preferably poets) on all sides. D.P. has one major henchman; a bouncer/poet from Southwest Philly named Doug Winter. Whatever social games come to fruition around them are planned by Doug and D.P. together. They run a reading series out of La Tazza 108. I go sometimes with Christopher. Christopher detests them, but there aren’t many reading series in Center City which deliver the “action-quotient” we want, and this is one. We learn fast; there’s no use trying to talk with D.P. or Doug unless you’re part of their in-crowd. Neither of us is prepared to make much of an effort. Through the whole liminal period of the early Aughts, we work around scenes like this and try and establish something worthwhile, both in and out of the accepted Center City circuit. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

From "Trish" ('11)

The story starts here: PAFA
has its yearly opening, and I
explore it with Lisa. I am
looking for Trish’s paintings:
she has invited me. She is no
where in sight. There: it’s her
self-portrait on the wall, called
The Vessel. Sepia, brown, colors
that have Spanish resonance.
Trish’s in blue, half-profiled,
wearing an expression of pensive
angst. She looks at me from
the painting. She is my soul
sister. She’s under my skin.

Our first date: Lisa still
in the dark. An operation I
enact covertly. We are going
to see a movie: Amelie. She is
merely cute. I sit through this
for you, Trish. I dialogue with
Bukowski while I sit there: I
deserve a blowjob for this
. Hank
is amused but reticent. Trish
wears a green winter hat which
now sits on her lap. Her hair
is pony-tailed. She has had a
salad at Cosi. I am hungry, I
enjoy my hunger: mind-fucked.

Back at my place: 21st and Race.
I play Trish “Sweet and Dandy”
from The Harder They Come. She
dances without restraint on the
tan carpeted floor. Something is
becoming loose in us. Then she
lays down on my floor, in blue as
in The Vessel, and lets me paw at
her. Skyrocketing giddiness over
takes us. We are drinking grog
(rum and water) from capacious
blue mugs, each other’s new toy.
Look: I have, in my pocket, a
copy of Aleister Crowley. It’s red.

I am in an artist’s studio: winter,
long broad windows, sunset, it’s
going down. I am in a wife-beater
with braces, mustachioed, jack-in-
the-box. There is a portrait of
Apollo on the wall: nude, in a
field of purples and blues. He
carries a fiddle. Trish and I are
drinking cheap red wine. There
is no one else (it seems) in the
building. Pipes drone steadily.
Warmed by the wine, we sneak
into a dark bathroom. I crash
through several floors of myself.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

From A Poet In Center City ('12)


Through dealing with Elizabeth Yankel, I’m introduced to the Center City literary old guard. Many of the men are gay; if they scope me out, it’s to determine if I mean “action.” Joe Miller fits this profile; an old friend of Elizabeth’s who lives in a duplex apartment at Seventh and Bainbridge. His most prized possession is a photo of himself and a bearded, bespectacled Allen Ginsberg, taken backstage at the Painted Bride in the Seventies. It’s on the wall of his study; the other wall is covered by long bookshelves filled with recent poetry books. Joe seems to have read everything; to know what he’s talking about. His real penchant is for Philly literary gossip (particularly among the gay poets), and he considers himself the raconteur of the tribe. His heyday, he always says, was the Eighties; that was the peak, the time Philly poetry really swung. There were readings every night and everyone slept with everyone. It’s all (I later find out) blarney. The hitch with me is that I’m straight. Nevertheless, I arrange a bunch of readings for us to do together— at bookstores, music venues, even at the Kelly Writers House on the Penn campus (I’m finishing my degree at Penn.) The readings are half-festive, half-strained; but because I happen to be sleeping with girls, I deny him the gossip-angles he wants. Elizabeth, I’m later to learn, has the same reservations about me that Joe does. For the gays in this tribe, art and gossip seem inseparable; are, in fact, flip sides of the same coin.


The old guard is reserved about me; they refuse to deal with Christopher at all. Christopher is pompous about being young and fresh; he’ll do anything not to be a bore. The sensibility finger points from Christopher to Morrissey and straight back to Oscar Wilde. As might be expected, Christopher is sexually ambiguous; he frequently makes flirtatious remarks in my direction. But, I notice over the first few years I know him, he only seems to sleep with girls. Bisexuality is one of his adopted poses. Joe Miller and Christopher, when they run into each other, have nothing to say. Christopher, at this time, has several poems out in the Columbia Poetry Review. Christopher’s writing is more avant-garde than Joe’s or Elizabeth’s; bits of Pound, Cummings, and “Pop” kitsch. I never lose the sense that Chris is based in Manayunk, which is its own place (at a tangent to Center City) and with its own ethos. Main Street, Manayunk, is posh like Walnut Street, but smaller, more sedate, and cozier. Drinking in Manayunk (as Christopher and I are wont to do) is peaceful and, especially in spring and summer, decidedly a glamorous experience. Some of the glamour Christopher has for me is Manayunk glamour, and he does come off sometimes as a Manayunk transplant in Center City. The first important reading I do with Christopher is at Villanova University (he’s an alumnus) on a cool spring night in ’01. We read to about fifteen female undergrads, and they treated us like big-shots. Who could ask for more?

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Various Juxtapositions

Gaetan Spurgin was a major Free School presence, partly because we all liked him, and partly because he'd been a major presence in This Charming Lab, the predecessor to PFS. The shows we'd done in 2000 (Gaetan with his band Metro, me solo, and others, including Matt Stevenson and Radio Eris) at venues like The Khyber, The Pontiac Grille (JC Dobbs), and the Killtime Warehouse in West Philadelphia, had been, at best, semi-successful, but they had bonded us socially. Later in the early Aughts, I used the This Charming Lab moniker to book readings at the Kelly Writers House at Penn (see 3/27/04) as well; the multi-media angle was gradually built into it. But the 2000 version of This Charming Lab was mostly straight rock, and Gaetan, as front man for Metro, was a selling point to get the gigs. Gaetan was tall, brawny, and statue-esque, at 5'11; had lank blonde hair usually dyed jet black; closely resembled a Goth/fetish boutique version of Hugh Grant; and had (like Matt Stevenson) a killer IQ which meant that those who condescended to him as a degenerate were stunned to find themselves articulately rebuffed.

By early '03, Gaetan was stationed in a live-in recording studio in South Philly, at 13th and...Carpenter? Ellsworth? I don't remember. I had the intriguing idea of fixing Gaetan up with Abby Heller-Burnham. I was with Mary. So, the three of us descended on Gaetan's studio one late afternoon in spring. What happened was classic Philly Free School mayhem- Abs took one look at Gaetan, decided he was declasse (though she was happy to smoke his deliciously laced weed, as we all were) and wouldn't talk to him much. Even with me there, Mary and Gaetan started flirting. Blatantly. In such a way that I was gripped with weed paranoia. So, I disrupted Gaetan and Mary and found a manner of asserting that, in this time zone/context, Mary was mine. Another little factoid worth offering up- Mary Harju is the only woman in my life who has ever caused me sustained, chronic jealousy. In those days, when Mary decided to tart it up, I would go bonkers; and she enjoyed yanking my puppet strings. Yet, significantly, she did end up following my lead. Through our stoned fog, I managed to frog-march Mary and Abby out of Gaetan's studio. Mary confessed to being attracted to Gaetan; but Gaetan had fallen for Mary very quickly, and was never quite the same again. A year later, I had broken up with Mary, and I encouraged Gaetan to go after her. The truth is what it is- had Gaetan made the right moves then, something could've happened between them. But Gaetan was otherwise engaged, and forced not to act. Their moment never returned.

Gaetan's band by '04, ElektroWorx, were at a tangent to Metro's glam/garage-punk; it was all Goth/industrial electronica, complete with (for their live shows) multi-media slides/ image presentations which made them perfect for the Highwire and the Free School shows. ElektroWorx did precisely two Highwire shows- and, for the long season Mike and I spent doing the Center City rounds recruiting, promoting, and hustling our wares, Gaetan's studio in South Philadelphia was always a port of call for us. Mike and Gaetan got on well, as Mike treated Gaetan respectfully and was gracious (as was I) about smoking Gaetan's dope. Matt Stevenson and Gaetan Spurgin had a bunch of levels in common, including high IQs and involvement in rock music production work. But because Gaetan was derisive about Radio Eris (who, honestly, I couldn't include in the Free School shows in the form they were in then because they were too dissonant), which was Matt's baby, they couldn't bond. Gaetan did visit us once while we were recording Ardent at 11th and Webster, also South Philadelphia. One punchline of this whole narrative is that ElektroWorx brought a crowd to the Highwire- the pungent Philly Goth/industrial crowd- who made an amusing contrast to the standard Philadelphia art-gallery ambiance enough that I knew these shows should be noted for posterity somehow. PFS had that stock-in-trade going: amusing juxtapositions. One perk about the Highwire shows I know Gaetan enjoyed- he got paid. As was important to the Highwire, our shows there did turn a profit.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

2004-2005: Promiscuity

Summer '04 to summer '05 was the heaviest year to be on the street in Aughts Philadelphia. There was an explosive energy around everything- and my emotions oscillated, personally, between euphoria and dejection from night to night. It wasn't just the Philly Free School Highwire shows; because the Making Time DJ nights had a large national and international following, and all the DJs worked at the Last Drop, just to be in the Last Drop at that time was to be in a realm so supercharged that we might as well have been doing lines off the tables. Adam Sparkles, who shared my name and birthday, ran the place with an iron fist. If he was laconic with PFS, it is because at that time he considered us competitors.

Yet, for many of us, the euphoria of success was counter-weighed by the dejection of living a life more excessive than I (or Jeremy or Abby, especially) had planned in our comparatively "salad" early Aughts days. Abs and I picked a weird moment to consummate our relationship, but there it was. The low point of the year for me was confessing to Mary Harju, who was no dummy and knew the score. Mary and I had been separated for over a year, but still. The one Philly Free School show Mary deigned to attend at the Highwire (at which we showed her Dionysus), she brought her sister Laurie, who was as blonde and pixie-faced as Mary but sharper about making her way materially in the world. She was essentially conservative, and had a way of making us feel like heathens for being artists. Mary's "husband" that night wore a tie-dye, and was truculent. Ruth, the third sister Harju (or Hariu, as they sometimes spelled it), was more handsome than pixie-faced, brunette, and wavered somewhere between Mary and Laurie. So, oddly, my most promiscuous time passed without much real contact with Mary at all.

Unsurprisingly, Mike Land was (or appeared to be) in heaven. Everywhere we went together, including the Highwire, we were treated like celebrities, because the Free School shows were big news- even the Philadelphia City Paper was in on them. It also didn't escape my notice that for these months, we were living the way the Beatles and the Stones were supposed to have lived. If Mike Land was a surprise and a superlative running buddy at a time like this, it is because he was good with euphoric moods, but also with dejected ones- he had a precociously developed appreciation of the human condition, and an empathy with pain and human suffering, which meant that (as, again, I was surprised by) he was no fair weather friend at all. I came to the conclusion- beneath the hustle and the good looks, Mike Land was a very old soul. Jeremy was crabbed and deficient this way and not someone to lean on; Abs, maybe. In the right mood, she could be a stand-up friend. It also never ceases to amaze me that it is here, with all this tumult going on, that Abby fulfilled her destiny and painted her masterpieces.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Two of Them

It stands to reason that I would want to reveal this- Abby Heller-Burnham was one of the best dancers I've ever seen. When she was thin, and despite her tininess, Garbo-faced Abs taking over a dance floor was a sight to be seen. She was so fluid and dynamic that everyone just got out of her way. I saw this happen at house parties at 4325 in West Philly and Upstairs at the Khyber Pass in Olde City. The point stands: both Abby and Mary were objects of a terrific amount of male and female lust. I was an average dancer, competent, not terrific; Mary, oddly enough, couldn't dance at all. Her big bones and over-long legs made her clunky. The Mary/Abby study in contrasts goes out in every direction. The approach to relationships, for example, was not particularly similar. Mary preferred long engagements; marriages, more or less. Abby had a harder time with prolonged intimacy. On the other hand, many of Mary's "marriages" were to dubious individuals who she was following around for the wrong reasons. I remain unimpressed with any Mary-husband but myself. The approach the two painters had to personal integrity was also dissimilar. Mary could be very charming but was also evasive. When her motivations in any given situations were less than pure, she wouldn't stick at rationalizing and bending the truth to her will. She would never admit her other husbands were who they were, and would go to extraordinary lengths to maintain an unruffled surface. Abs was rawer and edgier; less likely to charm, more likely to tell the truth. Which meant that if you went out to party with Mary and Abby somewhere, if there was a social snafu it was probably Abs; yet Abs would also have a stronger sense of who at the party was a bullshit artist or not.

In a way, its impossible not to notice (here) that I was more intimate with Mary, a husband figure for her; yet Abby clearly emerged as the superior artist, from a place in the early Aughts when they seemed to many onlookers to be roughly equals. Abby, as I now divine, painted more and cared more about her art than Mary did. She had a real vision, and she pursued it. Mary's artistic vision amounts to a half-vision; and Mary, owing to addictions and for other reasons, could never focus the way Abby did in the mid-Aughts. On the other side of things: Mary wasn't drastically a liar, and could bring home-truths about herself and her art to the surface at least some of the time. And, as seemed merciful to me, Mary didn't share Abby's pulverizing temperament. Yet the pulverizing quality of Abs' temper represented (also) the pulverizing brilliance of her painterly perfectionism, which Mary (as ever) half shared. Abs is one of the greatest pure painters who ever lived; Mary a more-than-competent middle-weight. I also have to make an important confession, as a man: the female levels of awareness the two painters shared, in my direction and elsewhere, have to remain inscrutable to me. They were both highly intuitive, and most surely bonded on levels which I could not know were there. When they talked turkey about painting, the same themes seemed to recur: gossip about other PAFA (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) students and instructors; grievances about galleries, curators, and dealers, and then the heavy stuff- Abs can go anywhere on the board she chooses (special favorites like Poussin), but leans on Ingres and David as reference points more than anyone else, while Mary sticks closely to the Renaissance.

In the early Aughts, when the three of us were together it was like kids frolicking- loose, giddy, unselfconscious. We were onto something special, and we knew it. From 2004 forward, things got heavier, in both positive and negative directions, and the halcyon days of the early Aughts were already a memory. Mary had more than one painting shown at a Philly Free School Highwire Gallery show- her early Dionysus (where is it now?) is the one I remember; while Abby played PFS shows with her band, The Bad News Bats, all the while fulfilling her destiny and painting her masterpieces, as Mary struggled. For several years, I do not know what Mary and Abby were doing in relation to each other. I do know that for Mary and Abby, '98-'03, from when they began at PAFA, were the crucial years of intimacy. As the Aughts progressed, circumstances, some of which I knew of, intervened, and the two painters lost their sense of joie de vivre together, as each presented a formidable challenge for the other to deal with.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Reading Habits

The main Philly Free School characters were all idiosyncratic. Because she was a tall, leggy blonde who liked fashion (for instance), many Philadelphians would stop at the surface and claim Mary Harju ended there. Then, they would see the paintings and make an amended judgment. Yet, the complexity and richness of Mary's character went deeper than just her paintings. Mary was an avid reader, and made a fetish of Victorian novels. Among her favorites, Wuthering Heights, which she frequently re-read, seems to have made the deepest impression on her. She approved of the Catherine Earnshaw Romantic ideal, and loved the dramatic intensity of deep-set longing and tempestuous passion. Naturally, the Bronte sisters worked for her as well, and her imaginative life was stimulated by what enchantments nineteenth century Albion had to offer, specifically for women. Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Keats we shared- down to the fact that Mary claimed not to understand free-verse. This meant, of course, that anything I wrote which was not strictly formalist would go over her head. Since her paintings were largely Renaissance-derived, from her habits I learned that the two periods- Regency/Victorian England and the Renaissance- constituted a cognitive bedrock foundation for her art and life, even if, where her clothes were concerned, she maintained a contemporary stance. Because her imagination was fertile and she read constantly, Mary was also able to churn out first-rate academic writing when she needed to. So, the Grace Kelly veneer had much more beneath it than acquaintances (especially customers and co-workers at B & N) thought. As was disappointing for Mary and I, Abby Heller-Burnham was not a reader. She couldn't be- Abby was plagued with a kind of visual dyslexia which made it impossible for her to focus on texts. Numbers on pages and certain word sequences drove her crazy. When I bonded with Abs, it could be about music or her teaching me about visual art; she never showed any real interest in my poetry. Fortunately, we were both absorbed in the same social nexuses and activities, including PFS, so I didn't notice that much.

Matt Stevenson, being an avid reader of science fiction and comic books, also had a catholic streak about literature and could enjoy anything well-written and intelligent. Thus, when I would occasionally do a reading at Tritone or the Highwire with Matt accompanying me with his keyboards/effects pedals rig, his choices, from poem to poem, were always thoughtful and germane. Matt's intelligence had a polished quality which made an amusing contrast with his ragamuffin appearance. What was habitual about Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum on these levels was a contradiction. He had an English degree from Villanova; had already founded and edited a successful literary journal ("d") from Villanova and Manayunk; and had established himself as a publishing poet on a national level, from Philadelphia. Poetry jargonese was perpetually on his tongue- anaphora, enjambment, parallel structure, etc. He championed my poetry and his critiques were helpful. It's just that Jeremy had a books problem- he didn't like them very much. Pound he stuck to as to an obligation (the English department as Villanova being crammed with furious, inchoate Poundians). Yet it was impossible not to notice, as the Aughts progressed, that Jeremy's affair with literature had soured. Once the split with literature, by 2004, was made concrete, Jeremy could be seen with random, obscure texts in public (usually avant-novels in the vein of Pynchon, John Barthes, for instance) and not much else. It also needs to be stated that some of the poetry Jeremy published, in the Columbia Poetry Review and elsewhere, is interesting enough to merit consideration. But when he moved to video, photography, and graphic design, the move was more or less final. He did still have a gig drafting proposals for Venturi, Scott, and Brown in Manayunk; I met Robert Venturi through him in the mid-Aughts, who even bothered to come once to a PFS Highwire show; but Jeremy needed personal space around him which literature impinged upon.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Meeting at St. George's

St. George's in Philadelphia, on 7th Street between South and Bainbridge, was a bar that had an upstairs which could be used as a performance space. One night in the late summer of '99, within a few days of shifting to Philadelphia from Manhattan (briefly stationed in Glenside before the move to 21st and Race), I got the tip-off that a bunch of acts were putting on a show at St. George's (I was at Philly Java). It was a sultry night, and cloudy, threatening rain. As I ascended the stairs, I looked and saw Matt Stevenson, who I had met at Robin's Books a little less than a year before at the last Siren's Silence reading, hunched over his keyboards/effects boxes rig, and Lora Bloom reciting into a microphone. This early, "pure" version of Radio Eris, as a duo, remains my favorite. Matt was short and stocky, 5'7, wore spectacles, had a slight hobble, and topped it off with a kind of inverse sartorial splendor, making semi-rags look as unique as possible. His speaking voice was rich and memorable, and he spoke quickly and articulately, even when stoned, which he often was. That's why, at a later date, Penn kids had a problem with Matt Stevenson- when a seeming stumble-bum could out-argue them, they became visibly uncomfortable.

If I felt a certain urgency about talking to Matt at length for the first time, it is because an intuitive call had been sent out from somewhere in the universe to me- Philadelphia was going to be a cultural monster, one way or another, and it was my responsibility (and Matt's, if he cared to join me) to start the ball rolling. I managed to convey this to Matt at the upstairs bar, and began to learn Matt's quirks- even when he was deeply interested (and he was), Matt Stevenson had to be a cynical bastard. It's just that I had him, and I knew it. When we looked at what was happening onstage, it was obvious that something magical was there- as Dave and Nemon Buckery played, the skylight above them was wild with windy rain and lightning, and the phantasmagoric effect was intense, the little crowd there assembled rapt. It spoke to me as a metaphor for what Philadelphia could be culturally, and it did so with the spacy, chiaroscuro, eerie ambiance of Philadelphia at night I was already in love with.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Matt and I were joined by a third attendee. He introduced himself as Dan Baker, painter and musician. Dan was another lanky six-footer, with flaming red hair cut into a bob and a red beard to match. Dan was a transplant from Chicago, and (he inferred instantly) underworld-consonant. You could feel the dangerous edges all around him. For all of Dan's musical involvements, with Dan (for me) the paintings are the point and, for their elegant simplicity, will eventually come to light. As I left St. George's that night, forced to walk to Market East Station sans umbrella, I felt something click that was like having a sudden million dollars in the bank. In the days that followed, I moved my stuff from Glenside to 154 North 21st Street. The flat was studio- but, because the front/facade of the apartment faced east (lots of morning sun) and was all bay windows, and the living room space had loft-level high ceilings, it felt much spacier the right way. I was to live in "2A" until mid 2008. I also had a gig working at Great Scot Rittenhouse Market off of Rittenhouse Square- B & N would come later that year.

I had Matt and Dan's contact info, and other things going on- Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum and I were hosting readings in Philly Java's back-room, where the Siren's Silence readings had been in '96-'98. Jeremy and I, oddly enough, knew each other from earlier in the Nineties- when, on semester breaks, I would hang out with Chris DeFranco in Manayunk, I met Jeremy and his Villanova-based "D" Magazine posse. Jeremy's unique self-presentation- Al Pacino meets Oscar Wilde, in Smiths-land- was difficult to forget. The night of St. George's, I had probably started with Jeremy at Java before migrating over. Perhaps St. George's was not posh enough for Jeremy; I had (and have) a ratty streak, and no such scruples. In fact, Aughts Philly depended on most of us having a ratty streak most of the time. Penn notwithstanding, we weren't rich kids, and didn't always bother to cultivate rich contacts that much. A perfect moment in Aughts Philly could happen anywhere, at any time, and we were all attuned to that wavelength.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Space Between: May 15, 2001

To work a shift at the Barnes and Noble on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia in the Aughts was a relatively simple, straightforward task. I worked there from precisely the turn of the century until mid '06, when the University Fellowship at Temple University allowed me to graduate upwards (I had done a low residency Boston MFA from Philly). We all had our ways of passing the eight-hour shifts, seeing as the work-load wasn't too heavy. For Mary Harju, who worked at B & N until '09, when she moved to New York to do her own MFA (which I felt was unnecessary, after PAFA, and told her as much), the shifts were reducible to how she looked that day, her threads and the fashion statements she was making with them. Mary loved clothes, and she loved to dress. I am, admittedly, no clothes horse myself, so it is difficult for me to judge how much fashion gravitas she had. I noticed that Michael Barbella, an intelligent, charming gay man about fifteen years older than us, who was the B & N head manager while we were there, approved of Mary's moves. As she effortlessly sashayed around, Mary didn't always say much; it took me a while to draw her out. But, since Mary loved to be well-dressed in public, and since she was no snob about working retail (nor was I), B & N was no stretch for her. The Renaissance ideal of well-roundedness was also hers.

Mike Land was difficult to ignore at B & N for other reasons. At a lanky-yet-strapping 6'3, Mike's life was animated by a central contradiction- even at a young age (and Mike was precocious in every way), he was an extremely advanced hustler with a heart of gold. Mike took pains to pay attention to all those around him, and to make everyone feel special; yet the Puerto Rican edge of his good looks meant that certain types (including Mary Harju) would always mistrust him. How Mike passed the eight-hour shifts was to practice his seduction skills on absolutely everyone. Venus rising in Libra, and with stamina to back it up. Nick Gruberg was a problem at B & N. Also tall and strapping, at six feet even, Nick was a scientist first, and a U of Chicago graduate, and enjoyed employing his considerable IQ toying with other people's brains. He let Mike and I off the hook, considering I was a Penn grad and Mike and him became fast drinking buddies; others were not so lucky. Alone among us, Nick eventually got his ass fired for his transgressions.

What all of this is leading up to is one shift I worked at B & N: May 15, 2001. Mike and Nick weren't there yet; I was yet (also) to be Mary's hubs, but was in a long relationship with Melissa Floyd, a Southern belle transported to Philadelphia, whose delicacy and refinement were appreciated by most of us, and who already knew Mary (they were spiritual cousins) to be a rather sinister threat. I had spent several months delving deep into Modern Philosophy texts- prompted by the niggling fact that I had been a philosophy major at Penn State, and had let philosophy go for several years. May 15, 2001 was a bright, sunny spring day in Philadelphia. As my shift started (was it 4-close?) a series of ideas occurred to me in a certain order, resolving many of the problems I was encountering in Modern Phil. aesthetics texts (Hegel, Schopenhauer, etc), and the solutions came to me in a kind of lightning bolt. For the rest of the shift, I was on fire, and scrawled the thoughts I was having onto scraps of paper. Many of the May 15 notes became the backbone of Space Between, as it developed in 2013. In the crude form I collated them in that May, they didn't look like much. Melissa, another high IQ, liked them; Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum was tolerant but befuddled. Because there were so few philosophy heads around me (I was doing English at Penn), it took me a dozen years to get back to the notes the right way. Yet May 15, 2001 was certainly the most memorable shift I ever worked at B & N, and the feeling I had that day of being struck by lightning was unique. All those years in Aughts Philly were lit up by lightning bolts- the explosiveness was reliable, as Philadelphia ascended to heights none of us could've foreseen in 2000, when the distant rumble of thunder was heard which was to deliver us a mature United States.

Thursday, May 21, 2015


There was a night in October 2002 I was recording in South Philadelphia with Radio Eris keyboardist/utility producer Matt Stevenson. What we were recording became the spoken word album Raw Rainy Fog. I have described in detail elsewhere precisely what Main Street West (aka Webster Street Studios) at 11th and Webster in South Philadelphia was like; to nut-shell the thing, a lovable hovel. I had picked up some Paisano red wine, because we were to have guests that night- Mary Harju and Abby Heller-Burnham. As of autumn '02, Mary and I were entrenched, and Abby was our constant companion. When they arrived, we smoked the requisite bowl (Matt's weed) from Matt's little marble-textured piece, and I poured the wine. This was, I laugh to remember, rather a mistake- Mary and Abby, together or separately, could hold their pot but not their booze. So, Matt was forced to watch, in semi-bemused fashion, as the two painters disintegrated into cacophonous incoherence and tantrum-like upset. They were a tumultuous pair; and, a few months after that (February '03), they moved into a two bedroom flat in a complex on 42nd Street off of Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia, where Mary had lived for a few years already at the pictured 4325 commune. I was Mary's hubs, and there constantly.

One nuance to remember about Mary and Abby, as a Dynamic Duo- Mary, through a rigorous and rigorously enforced regimen of scant eating, was always perfectly thin, if still rather more big-boned up close than one would think; Abby Heller-Burnham's weight was always fluctuating between extreme thinness and chunkiness. Her quandary was clear- the better she was painting, the more she liked to eat. Mary had a height advantage, as well- her Grace Kelly-like near 5'8 to Abby's elfin five feet even. The flat itself was nondescript- a large kitchen/living room space (the kitchen had an island), flanked by bedrooms on either side. No serious painting could be done there- Abby and Mary both had studios elsewhere. Because Mary had a hubs, she was given the larger, master bedroom, as we alternated apartments night by night as usual (I was still at 21st and Race). An important facet of Abby's personality which became visible at this time was her slow-burn Virgo temper- she was pissed at Mary's marriage to me, and harbored a secret grievance that she (the reason wasn't important) deserved the master bedroom. It's just that they both knew by then (without necessarily verbalizing it) what it would take me a number of years to realize for myself- Abby Heller-Burnham was a greater artist than Mary Harju. She was more inventive, imaginative, and formally rigorous, building on French Neo-Classicists Ingres and David from a firm base of solid contemporary engagement, while Mary settled for aping the Renaissance and hoping for the best. What was simmering in them in '03 was a congeries of all these issues.

We all enjoyed ourselves in that apartment for a while. We could all sing, so that spring we conceived the idea of writing and rehearsing some tunes. Perhaps Matt could record us at Main Street West or we could play a few clubs. The material we compiled over a few months was intriguing, including a nod to Sister Lovers-era Big Star called "She Slit Her Wrists." We managed to play out together, sans name, precisely once in the summer of '03. It was upstairs at Book Trader, then still at 5th and South, at an event coordinated by Brian Patrick Heston, who was a benevolent presence for us then, and his posse. I'm sure we sounded like lunatics, but a good time was had by all. In the middle of all this, On Love and Hamlet On Pine Street appeared in Hinge Online; Mary and I were still studying at Penn; I did several readings at the Kelly Writers House on the Penn campus (all taped, and tapes which may still exist); and Mary and I were planning our trip to Montreal. I was moving, in my writing, away from the Romantic pastiches of '01/'02 towards a kind of groping around for a resolutely contemporary voice yet mindful of Romanticism's lessons. Abby, who had then begun The Skaters, was performing roughly the same aesthetic task.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

There Is Such Noise & Gravity

Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon, was one of Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum's favorite books. In early 2001, Jeremy and I made plans to do a series of readings in Philadelphia, including one at Jeremy's alma mater, Villanova University, off in the 'burbs. We had both had some recent success: Jeremy had twice had poems published in the Columbia Poetry Review (Columbia Chicago), and my Icarus In New York had just been released in American Writing 21. Jeremy used a quote from the Pynchon book as a title for the series: "There Is Such Noise & Gravity." We did Big Jar Books, Book Trader, and the Villanova show in (I believe) March '01, also with J.D. Mitchell, a novelist and new friend of ours. What I remember about these readings is that Jeremy liked things to run in a punctilious fashion, and they didn't, always. He also liked to maintain his place as the center of attention. There was already a drift, in 2001, from Jeremy, away from literature, and towards graphic design, video work, and photography, which is mostly what he did in the Philly Free School years. I was still recovering from the 2000 slog of my own ambitious performance project, This Charming Lab, which straddled the same worlds PFS would later, but with less success. All my new 2001 routines focused on literature as the centerpiece of my creative life; until 2001, it was literature in contention with drama, popular music, and other interests. Hopefully, someone somewhere has the Jeremy fliers for There Is Such Noise & Gravity. Jeremy's graphic design eye was borderline flawless.

Another occurrence in '02 which did not involve Jeremy: I did a series of readings at the North Cafe on South Street, under the aegis of Natalie Felix, a poetess/performance artist roughly my age who had set up shop in South Philly at the time. My writing in '02 often involved rigorous imitations of Romantic poets Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth; both the forms they used and their thematic tropes. This turned out to be all on the road to On Love in 2003. Fortunately or unfortunately, much of the formalist writing I did in '02 is now lost to time. I later dismissed the poems as too derivative to be published, with the exception of On Love and On Psyche, which appeared in American Writing 23. Natalie Felix was an indulgent presence, even as her own poetry tended towards spoken word formality. In all honesty, I can't remember why Jeremy was never able to make it to the North Cafe. I do remember that much of the formalist stuff (including On Love) coalesced thematically around my relationship with Mary Harju. Jeremy liked Mary immediately.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

July 10, 2004: Philly Free School 1

The first Philly Free School was held on the late afternoon into evening of July 10, 2004. Nick Gruberg had not yet been adopted into the fold; Mike Land showed up in August, ready for action. That night, it was just myself and Jeremy Eric Tenenbaum. We got a miracle to dovetail with the Hinge Northern Liberties show; it was a bright, sunny summer day, and the sunset (the Highwire bay windows faced west) was gorgeous. I read On Jazz and a few other things; Golden Ball did a musical routine not unlike London Free School era Pink Floyd; I had imported Luke Fishbeck and Lucky Dragons from the Hinge show; CaConrad read briefly; and (God help me!) I think there was another band who played that night, but I can't remember who. What I do remember is that the laissez faire attitude of the Highwire rubbed off on us, as we served all kinds of "refreshments" which had been provided for us, so that by the end of the show everyone had a nice, dreamy buzz on. Philly has decent space-cadet karma.

Another factoid to set in place about the Highwire, and the Gilbert Building; it was on the third floor, and most Highwire patrons took an elevator, followed by a long, white-painted, winding hallway, to get there. This means that for the duration of the Free School shows at the Highwire, we felt secluded enough from street-level action to party in peace. This wasn't true in Northern Liberties; there, it was more a matter of luck. It was also true that the first show employed only the main Highwire space (here pictured), not the factory space adjacent to it, which would come in handy that fall when we expanded our repertoires. By 2005, our productions at the Highwire were quite baroque, between where the refreshments were, where the performers were, and what was happening back and forth between the two spaces.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Hinge Online

The story of Hinge is not one I can tell; or, rather, one I can tell conclusively. They were around for a number of years in Philly; their el primo era seems to have been the early Aughts. I published in Hinge several times; they also accepted, eventually, several mp3s from Ardent, the '04 album I made with Matt Stevenson in South Philly. Hinge for me are made most memorable, other than for their benign online presence, by the Northern Liberties extravaganza they put on in the spring of '04, in the middle of Ardent and me finishing Penn. It was a brilliantly sunny, warm, spring day; we got lucky, especially as the warehouse space where the show was held had a big yard in front where everyone could hang out, imbibe. It was, for the multi-media nature of what was presented (including my reading), and for the general Aughts Philly ambiance of permissive indulgence, as halcyon as it could be. As I watched Lucky Dragons weave a weird sonic web over the crowd and conquer our sense that computer-generated music couldn't have vibe and depth-resonance, I knew in the pit of my stomach that this is where the public side of my art had to go. I was thinking, still at the Hinge event, of the London Free School around Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd; that was the cultural reference point which occurred to me in there. Of course, London has few brilliantly sunny days, and what I imagined that Free School was like might or might not "op over" Hinge in Northern Liberties. Still, I wanted to conglomerate Hinge/Northern Liberties with my Swinging London fantasies, and by 7-10-04, was at the Highwire Gallery doing so, thanks to the generosity of Matt/Radio Eris.

These two Hinge hinged from Wordpress, On Love and Hamlet On Pine Street, demonstrate that as a poet, I was flexing muscles heavily under the influence of London; but, the London of Shakespeare and Keats, rather than Syd Barrett's. The space cadet, stoner, bed-hopping version of an art-city that is Aughts Philly has yet to be evaluated historically in comparison to these versions of London; when you are singed by a city's art, however, these manners and forms of questions are never far from your mind. With London, it is difficult to say. Here, Hinge Online will certainly have a vaunted place in the cultural history of Aughts Philly: tight but loose, a guarded fortress but a generous one, and right on a bunch of cutting edges at once, as the parameters broadened of what the Internet could be for artists, and those wishing to occupy cultural space in a city and a country, as we all did. Ten years later, all the richer.