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The Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
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the making and unmaking of person

John Pilcrow: Lounge Act Poet Blown Away
by John-Ivan Palmer

Footprints that met in the sand were erased
like their owners which are also erased
with the breeze of their absence.

--Yahuda Amichai (trans. by Sarkah Singer)

I don't care if people judge me. I was the poet John Pilcrow (pseudonym), even though your chances of recognizing me are about the same as waking up on a stage and finding yourself in a chicken suit. Maybe less. At the height of my publishing history I might have had as many as ten or--dare I dream?--twenty serious readers. Friends, mostly. Or at least I thought they were friends.
     During the time I was publishing in Broken Streets, Fresh Air Magazine, Wisconsin Review and Jack of Triads, all the night club managers, pit drummers, exotic dancers and theatrical agents who knew me through my X-rated hypnotism show would never have guessed I was the author of Spit Clown Dies In Fire, Massage Parlor Honeymoon, and the 1973 Pushcart Prize selection, The Turtle. They didn't know me as a poet because they didn't want to know me as a poet. In fact, they didn't want to know me at all. It was more convenient for them to think of me as just another entertainer with a flashy suit and a big mouth.
     Publishing poetry is hard enough, much less becoming a Rexroth or a Ginsberg. Obviously, total dedication is part of it, but it's by no means the single key. By comparison, if you think it's easy getting X-rated laughs on-stage, go down to your local comedy club on a Monday night and watch the amateurs give it a try. Tell me you can't feel the teeth of natural selection slowly biting down. Tell me you can't sense the indigestion and dry throat and the utter smell of fear as the young comic gulps in the groaning aftermath of that last dick joke.
     Evolution happens a lot quicker on the stage than on the page. As a poet my struggle was against the lengthening Ice Age of silence and final extinction. As an entertainer, on the other hand, I lived under the hot metaphors of war. You kill em, you slay em, you knock em dead. One night you die, the next night you kill. The metaphors even run back in the other direction. A laughable tyrant. Theater of battle. A military engagement. A show trial. A kangaroo court. How many people have been hung in the name of humor? So if you're a stage hypnotist working the Frontier Room in Vancouver or the Fantasia Cabaret in Edmonton, you "pull out their gizzard," "rip out their ass." Because if you don't do it to them, they'll do it to you.
     It took three years of constant submissions before "What No Means" was finally accepted by Fault Line Review in a five word note, and not a single known response from a single reader to the lines that echoed in my mind that winter, "he was mechanical failure / with his yes, his yes indeed / he was the wrong answer / through lady roadblocks / past signs turned she / singing loudly."
     I probably spent more effort than I should have on the ancient and noble form of love poetry, but it's what my Muse demanded as I tried to please the likes of Veronica Vixen, my Beatrice at the time. She wasn't my ideal reader, but she was a reader of my work nonetheless during those intervals when she wasn't shooting heroin under her tongue. She liked all the poems that never got published like "Dark Room Flare-up" ("Fingers try like falling bodies try / to stop..."), or "Juice of Autumn" ("painted, tainted dummy leaves") which she read out loud in her self-inflicted speech defect. Most of the men she knew before me were more interested in selling her balloons of opiate than writing her love poems, so I had the advantage of novelty. But we were both entertainers and if I was in Loredo, she'd be in Spokane. If I was in Spokane, she'd be in Whitehorse. If I was in Kamloops, she'd be in Edmonton and all this separation inspired me to write the Love Long Distance series beginning with "An Evening of Pain" (published in Xenophilia) where "my necktie licked one wrist / my belt welded the other / to a cheap bed of troubled sleep." Of course the relationship with Veronica didn't last any longer than the one with Flying Venus or Miss Fanny Love (a poet in her own right, unpublished except for one short poem called "Teddy Bear", which appeared in the ecdysiast literary journal G-String Beat).
     During this period of meager publication I performed at least a hundred shows "for unshockable mature adults" at places like the Canton Grill, the Dragon Lounge, Mr. Patrick's, the Paddock Lounge, the Red Bull, Tracy Star's, and the King of Hearts in Laramie before it was shut down as a public nuisance. Yet publication meant more to me than applause.
     As I crawled my way along the peeler circuit I wrote in quick succession "Pay At The Gate", "Song of Last Chances", "The Tuneout", all read in the Homeric oral tradition over Telepoem. I picked up my rejections and an occasional acceptance at weekly mail drops all over the country c/o General Delivery, always leaving a forwarding address to the town three weeks ahead. The acceptance notice for "Full Moon" (the personification of some infernal entity who "appears on a napkin / with razor and rage / then recedes / to appear in the notebooks / of a whiskered queen"), finally reached me in Winnemucca, Nevada with so many forwardings that they started using the back of the envelope.
     It was in Las Vegas that I had the fortune of meeting a wonderful patron, the elegant and elderly Louise N. Johnson of St. Paul, a sort of living chandelier, covered with massive drippages of clinking jewelry hanging from her skeletal frame. She could hardly hoist her ancient hands up to pat her intricately structured pompadour, but she could spot a poet across the floor of any casino. She edited the Poetry Corner of the Sun Newspaper, distributed free in the Twin Cities suburbs. I dedicated "Busload of Crazed Prisoners" to her, which ended, "a world of answers / all coming together / as the house explodes." She devoted one entire column to my work under the headline "Pilcrow's Poetry Confuses, Then Stimulates."
     After my marginally successful troubadouran phase, voyeurism became my next theme as I moved from one motel to the next across the western mountain states into the Great Basin and down to the Sonoran regions. I didn't fall into this paraphilia, as some have suggested, as a result of social isolation and seeking love from sensation-seeking strippers. Simple fortuity put the theme before me. After all, I worked in stripper-n'-comic clubs, and lived in cheap motels with poorly fitted curtains. But I did take some poetic license when I composed "Through the Bushes", which began "...he waits and she does too / this maven of angle / and ambush of view." I thought that might be more universally understood than the image of a stage hypnotist writing poetry in the dressing room of the Kon Tiki surrounded by half a dozen women rouging their nipples and trimming their pubes while chatting about balloons.
     At any rate, this poem drew hostile rejection from editors of poetry magazines that did not accept the connection I made between peeping toms and prophets blessed with privileged vision. As a seeker of higher truths I was perfectly able to revise my thinking. So all right, I stand corrected. Inspired voyeurs may not be the same as religious hermits. Furthermore, I might tend to agree that no one has to versify underage dating as in Blood Nail: "you, that brief eternity / of wild young hair, / that high school smell, / you, passing me on the right / in that jalopy packed with giggling hell." Maybe all those editors were correct in rejecting what I thought was a masterpiece of extended chaos in "I Need A Shrink," where I compared my very existence to "a burning tire all over the neighborhood." If that was the case, then what did it say about the legendary Milwaukee poet and telemarketer Charles Dynzof (aka Chuck Simmons), who published it--although much modified--in the second and final issue of Jack of Triads (Milwaukee, 1973)?
     On a blizzardy winter night a few years later I read a small collection of my poems at the Loft Literary Society in Minneapolis at the invitation of Mrs. Johnson. I was paired up with a local poet who received enthusiastic applause after each of her poems about a family farm, her first kiss in a tree house, and the loss of an old pet cow. Then it was my turn. When I read "House of Rented Dreams" there was silence. When I read "Pecker Pinball" there was an ever more silent silence, and when I closed with Massage Parlor Honeymoon, the only response was a couple of faint hisses to the lines, " the darkest sham / of a desert noon / your heart / a plowed patch of rammed stone."
     I left the podium (no applause), left the building, left town entirely. As I plunged my filthy entertainer's car through finger drifts that night and honked away the jackrabbits en route to the King of Hearts, in Laramie, I thought about the cow poem and the garden of dead flowers after the grandmother's funeral. It was very moving and I applauded with everyone else. But why was I the only one who saw the congruence between "Massage Parlor Honeymoon" and the cow grazing in the neglected garden of a dead person? Maybe it was my red show business suit and diamond pinkie rings that marked me as a painted bird. Or maybe it's because I didn't know anyone in town and couldn't paper the house with applauding friends. Or maybe it's because my poems didn't deal with any kind of experience anyone could relate to.
     But my rejection problems were by no means confined to the world of poetry. There was hypnotic failure too. Shows where I couldn't hypnotize anyone. If the Fat Lady doesn't sing at the Lone Star in Longview, rejection is more than a scrawled "Sorry, this is not for us." It's more than catcalls and jeering--it's flying ashtrays and lit cheroots. In the world of poetry I searched for higher truths, but in the world of stand-up I searched for lower truths, and each was equally elusive. I could appreciate a William Ellery Leonard or a Charlotte Mew and see the higher truths in the same way I could appreciate the lower truths of someone like The Great Maurice, the oldest and filthiest stage hypnotist of that time, dragging his hypnotic subjects out of their chairs and piling them up victoriously like dead Persians in the canyon of Thermopylae. But where could I learn how to do the same thing? How could I attain their success?
     I've never seen hypnotic failure written about in any stage hypnotism book or manuscript, not in Ormond McGill's Encyclopedia of Stage Hypnotism, or any of the works by Franquin, Leitner, Brandon or de Laurance. It's not so much as even hinted at in Harry Arons' much consulted Techniques of Speed Hypnosis. For all their over-priced books and manuscripts, rapacious dealers in secrets like how to drink a glass of water while the dummy sings or how to eat a light bulb, never come up with anything along the lines of "When Bouncers Can't Help You." Hypno failure does happen. And when it does, it's filth.
     It's like the skunk someone ran over on the highway in front of the Lone Star one night. The smell covered the parking lot and wafts of it came in the club every time someone opened the door. The manager tried to get one of the Mexicans back in the kitchen to take it off the road but they refused, so he finally had to go out and do it himself. He picked the reeking carcass up by the tail and threw it in the dumpster behind the club. But then it stunk every time they opened the kitchen door and the smell migrated into the dressing room. Believe me, when a stripper's not happy, no one's happy. So the manager had to pick the skunk out of the dumpster, stuff it in a plastic bag and drive five miles out of town where he threw it into a ditch. But the smell still lingered in the Lone Star for days.
     That's what hypno failure is like. It's a smell that won't go away. So you'll do anything to prevent it from happening--off-mike cues, bribes, threats, or, easier yet, study until sunrise, trying to figure out how it works on an ever deeper level. Otherwise the manager will say, as he did to me at the Lone Star, "Cut the educational crap and give me a good dirty show. One that'll pack this fucking dump and make me some money for a change."
     Yet I had my share of spectacular successes, nights when I drank the milk of paradise, when stage hypnotism operated on the level of 10th stage somnambulism, when the whole spectrum of neuropathic affect, aphasias, hypertaxia, hallucinations, and personality changes were accompanied by instant and profound post hypnotic amnesia. I turned people into flywheels, jackhammers, and wash machines with thrashing limbs. Cheeks and jowls shook as shoes flew off and pocket contents spilled all over the stage. The more expert I became at reducing people to barn fowl and other mockeries, the longer it took for my poems about miswired robots and bugs buzzing in mindless circles to find their way into print. My hypnotic routines such as the Swearing Hat, the Heat Seeking Dildo, and the Inflatable Woman were orders of magnitude more successful than the publication of "The Tuneout", "Song of Last Chances", and "Channels of Want", all published during the Texas tour.
     My involvement with hypnotism was not that unique in the history of letters. Many 19th century writers (and early 20th century Surrealists) dabbled in or wrote about it, from Alexander Dumas, to Mark Twain, to Henry James, even Charles Darwin. But to them the trance always worked. Balzac was never hit in the head with a beer glass, nor was Dickens hit with a red-hot penny when he performed on stage in Pittsburg in 1842. The Enlightenment notwithstanding, these neophytes flourished in times of mystery, not when things ending in -sque (burlesque, risque) were dying in an epidemic of things ending in -o (porno, disco, techno).
     In the early 1970's a strip bar was as sinful as you could get, and so there was the nervous feel of transgression packed into one small space embedded in an otherwise God-fearing community. These windowless boxes were often located outside of town, sometimes on county or state boundaries to take advantage of a lower drinking age. That far beyond the outskirts you could do pretty much whatever you wanted. Just don't expect police protection. People drank heavily to relieve the tension and life was loud and fast. Not the best setting to convince hypnotic subjects to relax and concentrate on a spot on the ceiling. On every show boozy belligerents drilled me with retrorse spines. It took a lot of humiliating performances and many long nights of close reading in the works of 19th and 20th century cognitive psychologists for me to construct routines based on the deepest of universal archetypes and come up with the Ten Inch Cock, the Farting Gorilla, and the Runaway Penis. After half my face had been hacked away in the gladiatorial arena of road house entertainment, I finally became a hot property at the Shelly Rae Agency and was able to raise my salary from one third that of a stripper to almost half. Meanwhile, my poetry themes became ever more incomprehensible to anyone except stage performers who, unfortunately, were dedicated non-readers. Poems like "Psycho Rapture" ("all is calm / I'm a ship of fire / plunging over the edge / of my flat earth"), "Compulsive Travel" ("wasting secrets like money / in a sandstorm of laughter") and "Fist Patch" ( "move over, clone band drummers / atomic workers and guys who live in grease") were not only universally rejected, but held up to me as examples of what editors were specifically NOT willing to publish.
     Balzac and Dickens already had reputations as writers and so their hypnotism performances were favors to the converted. They never knew what it was like to stand in front of a crowd hurling insults and ashtrays. But I finally triumphed, like a poet who keeps writing and keeps submitting, except my most successful "poems" were not about the higher truths, but the lower ones like The Penis Enlarger Testimonial. At last, I was packing those fucking dumps.
     So judge me if you like. Condemn me for surviving at the expense of civilization itself. The last poem I published, "Chuckhole", appeared in Louise N. Johnson's poetry column and ended, "my last words / a crumbling billboard / torn apart by wind."
     When the news of her death finally caught up with me in Las Vegas, I drove all the way out the strip in the middle of the night, past the MGM, the Mirage, the Stratosphere and then past the "adult" motels and the old downtown, then further out, past block after block of smaller and seedier casinos claiming asymptotic payouts, until they gave way to alcoholic dives, last chance gas stations, salvage yards and finally the darkness of the desert itself under light-polluted stars. I stood at the edge of a pale yellow nimbus that radiated from a shack of wheel rims and hub caps and marked my transition from poet to cheap thrills hypnotist by letting the desert winds carry my remaining unwanted poems away to their final oblivion like the ashes of someone you couldn't live without.




home archives submit black market comrads hot sites search ec chair peotick kultur anti-amthropomorphism
new economics of late capitalism gallery zounds the making and unmaking of person
diaries and memoirs translation and her retinue
the book of revelations and epiphanies working class sweat
the making and unmaking of person the corpse reads classics letters

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