A Prose Piece about Poet Bill Sovern by Joan Hawkins

Cut-up Bill Sovern in the Manner of Glissant

It’s been a long hard week, waiting for a poet I love and admire to die. He was in a car accident and within days was taken off life support. Gracie Strange stayed with him, day and night, reading the posts and poems people sent, playing him music. I couldn’t post anything. Just news about his condition. And the obvious observation that my heart was broken. That I sent love. That I was in a fury against the universe.

I lost my datebook. Full of passcodes and important numbers, so I was frantic. A young couple found it, outside the Good Will, and brought it to me in the kind of downtrodden car you rarely see anymore. None of the doors opened and they had to crawl in and out through the windows.  She was swathed in cloth because, she said, she is allergic to the sun. I gave them an envelope containing $100, and thought of Bill. “For gas,” I said. And wondered what he would poetically do with such a dire affliction– being allergic to the sun.

My internet connection died in the middle of a medical phone call. My insurance refused to pay for a prescription. I saw two friends and nearly quarreled with each of them. Afternoons tipping down into depression after coffees that should have been fun– or at least interesting.

I heard the news about Bill’s accident at a picnic. All around us people were laughing– and Tony said, “have you heard about Bill?” Now at my age, that’s never good. Prizes and honors are announced with flourish, right in the lead. “Have you heard about” always means the world has tilted on its axis. The strong full moon in Aquarius has exerted some maleficent influence. Even though I don’t believe in Astrology, I always check the signs and this week the signs have not been good.

On April 20, 2021 there was a freak Tuesday evening spring snow. Tony and I were invited to read at the Bokeh. Light dusting of snow as we walked into the bar, building into a real storm, throughout the evening, visible through the windows behind the stage. We worried through tacos and tequila, and Bill moved us up in the reading queue, so we could leave before the roads got too bad. Even so, it was a gnarly drive. Tony sitting ramrod straight in his seat, me making deals with God all the way to Bloomington. Poetry is a dangerous business in Kentuckiana, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri. We commute long distances to readings– bookstore to bookstore, bar to bar. Shit happens. Cops pulls us over and dangerous blue-haired poets are arrested for pot. There are flat tires; there are accidents. “It was snowing & the cold wind was blowing,” Bill posted the next day, “but there was a full house at the Bokeh last evening. Want to thank everyone who performed.”

The FBI raided Trump’s place in Mar-a- Lago–looking for classified documents. The war in Ukraine has come perilously close to a nuclear power plant. The Arctic is warming faster than predicted. Heartbreaking pictures show polar bears floating on chunks of ice that look like the saucer snow sleds we had as children. Just big enough for an 8 year old. There was an impromptu reading in Bill’s honor. People feeling they had to do something to mark the vigil, to send some kind of energy out into the universe. Bill’s energy– the kind that always says poetry matters- no matter what the fuck else is going on.  I can’t be there. Read the poems and tributes, hoist a glass in his honor. And am quietly glad when I read that the Senate has finally passed a bill supporting medical treatment for Vets. Salvador Dalì is dead.

I could go on like this forever. Pictures posted on Bill’s facebook page, show a tall thin man-sometimes bathed in colored light. Beat poet. Jazz poet. When I knew him, he always read with the Monkeys’ musical accompaniment. “Beyond each gentle thigh of curve/ technicolor roadkill pulsating/ on the blue collar horizons truck stops framed like/ oversized Hopper paintings” -That quote from “Blue Highways” posted alone. His facebook wall is peppered with posts from Tuscan poet Giulio Tedeschi, hinting at an international dimension to the man who liked being called “Hoosier Bill.”  Reminds me of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Before it was translated, Tedeschi’s most recent post read “Deceduto l’altro giorno.. Che la tiera ti sia lieve Bill!” “Died the other day, may the earth rest lightly on you, Bill.” And on Tedeschi’s own wall, messages of grief at the news–from all over the wide world. Another poetic night at the Bokeh. From Gonzo Fest, the motto from the statue of liberty. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses- yearning to be free.” The paint on the banner hanging behind Bill has dripped, so the words look like they’re crying.  

The day Bill died, Salman Rushdie was stabbed 10 times onstage. If he survives, they fear he will lose an eye and the use of an arm. It is open season on writers. And the universe has gone mad. Words.  I need words. I need millions of words. Words that turn you on. Words that turn you off.

Words. The poetry reading on the 16th at the Bokeh Lounge will be a celebration of life. I will scatter his ashes at the curve of the Muddy River near the city that was his Patterson.

Full house at the Bokeh last night. I want to thank the poets.

 It’s official. Rest in peace.

Bio: Joan Hawkins is a writer and spoken word performer, who focuses mainly on creative memoir.  Her  poetry and prose have appeared in Avalanches of Poetry, Fevers of the Mind, the Performing Arts Journal, Plath Profiles, and Sand.

Two poems are forthcoming in a special poetry issue of The Ryder Magazine. She and Kalynn Brower have co-edited an anthology called Trigger Warnings, which contains one of Joan’s stories; it’s currently under consideration by Indiana University Press. “My Writing Teacher”  comes from a manuscript in progress– School and Suicide.

Joan lives in Bloomington, IN with her cat Izzy Isou. She is currently the Chair of the Writers Guild at Bloomington.

Jennifer and Bukowski by Joan Hawkins

Jennifer and Bukowski

We were in the Ladies Room—the Ladies Lounge—of an old school, high-end San Francisco Restaurant.  The kind of place where waiters wear white jackets and long aprons, where tablecloths are starched and pleated just so.  And linen napkins stand at attention as far as the eye can see. 

And it was there, in the Ladies Room—the Ladies Lounge—, that my 16 year old granddaughter told me she’d been reading Bukowski.

Now you might wonder what 2 Bukowski-loving women were doing in a place like that.  I wondered the same thing myself—But Jennifer was in town for the weekend and she’d been curious to see how the other half lived.  And so she’d asked if Skip and I would buy her dinner —“at a nice place,” she’d said laughing.  This place. The place where Scotty first saw Madeleine in the movie Vertigo. And people still partied like it was 1958.

And so, after Jennifer ordered dessert, we went to the Ladies Room, the Ladies Lounge, as women in 1958 movies do.   I was putting on lipstick, leaning into the mirror.  Jennifer stood beside me, neon light cueing in from a street sign across the alley, cutting her face into cubist planes and casting a red halo around her.  Edith Piaf songs wound their way up from the sound system downstairs. Some women, draped in fur stoles—little animal heads and feet fastened at their necks– came in, complaining about the lobster.

When they left, I cocked an eyebrow at Jennifer.  “I guess the surf and turf is off tonight,” I said.  And that’s when she told me she’d been reading Bukowski. 

Now Jennifer lived in a small town in Northern California, a prison economy town that had been dying on the vine until the State started locking people up for minor drug infractions.  First the prison, then—suddenly– a whole service economy shook Janesville into the postwar era–a hotel, a coffeeshop, a Thai restaurant that doubled as a jazz club on the weekends. Janesville was booming. But there was still no bookstore. And I couldn’t imagine Notes of a Dirty Old Man in the local library. So I asked how she’d started reading Bukowski.

She shrugged.  Turns out Janesville had its own youth Underground.  Curious kids in souped-up trucks and landrovers—who drove north to Reno or—once a year—south to San Francisco for drugs, which they sold—and books, CDs and DVDs that they passed around like Samizdat. Jennifer had gotten Ham and Rye during one of those trips and was anxious to read more.  “Come on,” I told her.  “After you eat your dessert, we’ll go to City Lights.  I’ll buy you a book.”

“Do they have Bukowski?” she asked.

I thought of City Lights with its cantilevered side room full of Beat-and-friends literature.  Its shelves of Black Sparrow Press books, and the way even the cookbook section maintained a kind of Boho charm.  Its little corners where you could sit and read—and nobody bothered you or asked if you were planning to buy that book.

And the photographs—taken at readings—up on the walls, Charles Bukowski’s photo prominent among them.  I thought of the way I discovered Bukowski, back in the day when I was not much older than Jennifer– book crawling my way along the shelves, moving toward Diane Di Prima and getting distracted along the way.  

“ The difference between a bad writer and a good writer is luck, “he’d written. Cutting through all the romantic ideas I had about tortured genius with a meat cleaver.

For some people, discovering Bukowski is a rite of passage.  And he has to be discovered.  You have to find the lonely volume on the shelf, lean up against the rack,

open the book at random, and let that growling voice inhabit you.  Colonize you like a vampire.  It’s not the same, if your grandmother seems to know all about him, gives you carefully chosen, expurgated, cloth bound volumes to read, marks her favorite passages.  Too much like Nana giving you drugs. Kind of a comedown from the necessary cool.  And Jennifer is my favourite grand daughter. Because Jennifer is a lot like me.

So I dissembled.  Bukowski would say I lied—but it was in service of the greater good.  “I don’t know,” I told her, checking my mirror reflection one last time. “Let’s go see.”

Bio: Joan Hawkins is a writer and spoken word performer, who focuses mainly on creative memoir.  Her  poetry and prose have appeared in Avalanches of Poetry, Fevers of the Mind, the Performing Arts Journal, Plath Profiles, and Sand.

Two poems are forthcoming in a special poetry issue of The Ryder Magazine. She and Kalynn Brower have co-edited an anthology called Trigger Warnings, which contains one of Joan’s stories; it’s currently under consideration by Indiana University Press. “My Writing Teacher”  comes from a manuscript in progress– School and Suicide.

Joan lives in Bloomington, IN with her cat Izzy Isou. She is currently the Chair of the Writers Guild at Bloomington.

A story from Joan Hawkins: My Writing Teacher

My writing teacher

Most of us working the phones used a handle. An alias in case some cop or speed freak or infatuated client tried to track us down. A persona to match the online personality.  Tom was Moodus.  Harry was Speed.  Women tended to choose literary names.  Sharon went by Emily. Ginger—more radical by far—called herself George.  “Eliot or Sand?” Speed asked her once. “If you bothered to read them,” George answered, “you’d know.” Sharp tongued among ourselves.  Acid wit. Gallows humor.

          It was 1969.  Anything could happen at any time.  And when we weren’t working the phones, we were on edge.  We were Damien Switchboard, a crisis hotline and intervention center, located on the no-man’s land borderline separating San Mateo County, California, from San Francisco. Our goal was to buffer between counter culture freaks and The Man, to keep our people off the street and outside institutions as long as humanly possible. We provided drug counseling, draft counseling, pregnancy and abortion counseling, birth control information and sometimes basic sex ed. We did mental health referrals.  We kept track of crash pads—places where a stranger could spend the night—and safe houses where runaways and victims of domestic violence could shelter.  We maintained a rides board, hooking up people who had wheels with people needing transportation.  We talked frightened mystics down from bad acid trips.  But most often we just “rapped,” as we called it then. With the rusty percolator on overdrive, and KSAN humming in the background, we would talk to lonely, dispossessed, disheartened people all night long.  A lot of our work was suicide prevention.

          The youngest and most romantic of the group, I took risks. I did not use a handle. I was 16; it was the 60s; I believed in a kind of fate.  And besides I’d already changed my name once. At the Switchboard I was Joan—plain Joan.  The same name I used in my other life—not my real life, since things at Damien were always a little more intense and therefore a little more real—but my offline life, my student-poet-cashier-coffeehouse life.  At Damien, I worked the Friday night shift, the second-worst shift of the week.  When the phone wasn’t ringing, I wrote dark poetry and long, complicated journal entries.  “Write what you know,” my high school Creative Writing teacher used to scrawl on my papers. But I was writing what I knew.  Transcribing really.  The horror stories I heard on Friday nights. My writing teacher meant well, but he didn’t have a fucking clue.

Bio: Joan Hawkins is a writer and spoken word performer, who focuses mainly on creative memoir.  Her  poetry and prose have appeared in Avalanches of Poetry, Fevers of the Mind, the Performing Arts Journal, Plath Profiles, and Sand.

Two poems are forthcoming in a special poetry issue of The Ryder Magazine. She and Kalynn Brower have co-edited an anthology called Trigger Warnings, which contains one of Joan’s stories; it’s currently under consideration by Indiana University Press. “My Writing Teacher”  comes from a manuscript in progress– School and Suicide.

Joan lives in Bloomington, IN with her cat Izzy Isou. She is currently the Chair of the Writers Guild at Bloomington.

Poem “Eclipse” by Joan Hawkins for Before I Turn Into Gold Day

Leonard Cohen and Edie Sedgwick at the Chelsea Hotel by Joan Hawkins

Poem “Eclipse” by Joan Hawkins for Before I Turn Into Gold Day

Geoffrey Wren (c)

Eclipse

For Kirk

Ragged as the moon,
still as the water,
this night pulls me
back and forth
crossing time 
and space 
and
place, 
past
all forgetting.
Remembering
only
that one eclipse.

Laying in the back
of your flatbed
truck
Flat on our backs
and lying.
Cobweb-spinning
half truths
and dreams
Or was it 
half-dreams 
and truths.
Eyes half closed
One joint between us.
The slow glow
of your cigarette,
vampire tails
of smoke,
whispering 
demon
myths and mists
and occult stories
of lost
civilizations and
 ruin.

You were the
lover I never had.
The best
friend.
The dealer
from 
The Stranger Song.
The one
who 
opened 
vistas.

Meth slender,
tender,
sometimes
mean.
You 
gave me 
Keats
and The Four Quartets.
Sartre and
Leonard Cohen.
The first two albums
at once
and then, later,
the poetry.
Beautiful losers-
like us, you said
and laughed.

You taught me
to release
the lowest Nico
registers 
of my voice.
I had the timbre
You taught me
depth.
Playing Marianne
on your
12-string guitar
until your
fingers 
bled.
And I got
the notes
just
right.

A high flying
night rider,
fueled by 
speed
and 
black coffee,
you would 
take me
down 
the cliffs
to Ocean Beach
where we listened
to midnight 
waves
and gulls
and drunken
revelers,
had tea and oranges
that came
all the way from
China,
and recited 
poetry.

You gave me
my first
notebook.
And that one
night
chasing the
dark of
the moon,
you gave
me
the lunar
eclipse.

Bright
and quiet as
the stars,
still as
death, 
just-cresting
moonlight
grazing 
your cheek,
you held my
hand, tightly,
as we looked 
at the sky.
Sing "Suzanne"
you said.
So I did.

April 16, 2021

Bio: Joan Hawkins is a writer and spoken word performer, who focuses mainly on creative memoir.  Her  poetry and prose have appeared in Avalanches of Poetry, Fevers of the Mind, the Performing Arts Journal, Plath Profiles, and Sand. Two poems are forthcoming in a special poetry issue of The Ryder Magazine. She and Kalynn Brower have co-edited an anthology called Trigger Warnings, which contains one of Joan's stories; it's currently under consideration by Indiana University Press. "My Writing Teacher"  comes from a manuscript in progress-- School and Suicide. Joan lives in Bloomington, IN with her cat Izzy Isou. She is currently the Chair of the Writers Guild at Bloomington.


A story from Joan Hawkins: My Writing Teacher

Leonard Cohen and Edie Sedgwick at the Chelsea Hotel by Joan Hawkins

Wonderful Artwork from Avalanches in Poetry Writings & Art Inspired by Leonard Cohen by artist/writer Geoffrey Wren

4 poems from Robert Frede Kenter in Avalanches in Poetry

5 poems inspired by Leonard Cohen by Robert Frede Kenter (Before I Turn Into Gold Day)

All of the poems (revised) from Avalanches in Poetry for Leonard Cohen Week by David L O’Nan

Avalanches in Poetry 2 Entry: Peter and the Sea of G by Carrie Sword

Avalanches in Poetry 2 entry: Poetry by Lisa Alletson

Avalanches in Poetry 2 entries by Peter Hague :  “I Did Not Want it Darker””Between Leonards” “Following Leonard”