Monday, October 18, 2010

Stone Soup Poetry Founder Jack Powers: Doug Holder Looks Back…

Stone Soup Poetry Founder Jack Powers: Doug Holder Looks Back…

By Doug Holder

The last time I saw Jack Powers was the last night I worked at McLean Hospital in the summer of 2009. Out of the blue he visited me with his companion Margaret at Waverly House, the hospital program that I worked at for the past seven years. The house was empty save for my co-worker Richard Wilhelm, who also has been involved with my Ibbetson Street Press since its inception in 1998. Jack obviously had seen better times. He had suffered several strokes, so this always articulate man was alarmingly mute. That was the last time I remember seeing him. I knew he was in a nursing home in the North End of Boston. My friend, the poet and artist Deborah Priestly recently told me he was near the end. She later told me that he passed.

I had lost touch with Jack the past few years. But I can remember 10 years ago bringing a rather affected editor of some tony arts magazine to Jack's ramshackle abode so we could conduct an interview. The editor hailed from some upscale suburb and had a fancy degree from some arts college. He was cutting edge, and as haughty as Betty Davis in her prime. He seemed very dismissive of Jack. He looked askance at his bohemian digs. But I think after the meeting he was rather impressed with this very complex and nuanced man. He just wouldn’t invite him to his Lincoln, Mass. cocktail parties or anything.

In addition to the above mentioned interview, I also had conducted several solo interviews with Jack at his apartment around this same time. This ranged from his birth at Boston City Hospital, to his last apartment in the North End of Boston. This was before he became incoherent from the booze and the strokes.

I had been aware of his poetry series since the 1970’s when I was an undergraduate at Boston University. I was even in the audience at one of his events back then. In those times I had no idea of myself as a poet so I never read.

He was a striking man in the old days, with a thick black Afro, broad shoulders, and standing well over six feet tall. He was to say the least charismatic. He was admired by many women and men alike; he had a deep and commanding reading voice, and was very adept with hand gestures. When he read he evoked something in you—you reacted—you weren’t inert. He was deeply spiritual; a mixture of Boston housing project Catholicism and Eastern Religion.

His gone-to-seed apartment in the North End was a living archive. In a dark and damp basement there were piles of letters, posters, and books from the poetry world. He used to show me correspondence from Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and many others in his makeshift living room. There were piles of videos of the thousands of poetry readings he held over the years. I once asked my friend Mike Basinski, the curator of the University of Buffalo Poetry and Rare Books Archive to come down to Boston and bring back items from Jack’s apartment to start a Jack Powers collection. But when Basinski arrived Jack couldn’t bare to part with his stuff. It was so much a part of him. A second skin, an arm or leg—his heart.

Jack showed me a good selection of the eighty or so books he published under his Stone Soup imprint. Many of the poets he published are now in academic posts and in the bright lights of the literary world. Ironically, this is not where Jack felt comfortable. Most any poet I have talked to has had some experience with Jack. They have either got their start at one of his venues, or passed through there. I read for the first time there in 1985, and I was absolutely thrilled. I read my McLean Hospital poems, and Jack was very encouraging. Julie Stone, his long-time girlfriend was also very supportive. The rest is history—I haven’t stopped reading since.

I will always will be grateful to Jack for the help he gave us putting out the anthology “City of Poets: 18 Boston Voices” (Singing Bone Press 2000). He got blurbs from his old pals Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lyn Lifshin, and Dianna der Hovanessian. He set us up with his printer in Boston and he promoted the hell out of the book.

When Timothy Gager and I started The Somerville News Writers Festival in 2003 I wanted and did give Jack the first annual Ibbetson Street Press Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to the small press. Jack was always a friend of the small press—to the poet “outside the academy.” And he gave a voice and a venue to them.

From his early days Jack was dismissed by the mandarins of the Boston poetry world. He started Stone Soup in 1971 at the foot of Beacon Hill (or as it was know “Beatnik Hill”) as a reaction to this. Although many poets have not read at the hallowed halls of Harvard, or the Blacksmith House, and other venues of that ilk, he always gave a place for them at Stone Soup.

Like many artists and writers from Robert Lowell, to his pal John Wieners, to Anne Sexton, he suffered for substance abuse and perhaps mental illness. It is hard in this society to live as an artist. But Jack did. His last years were spent in poverty, surviving on the kindness of strangers and friends like the street artist Sidewalk Sam. Deborah Priestly was a close friend and was with him near the end and Chad Parenteau, carries on the tradition of Stone Soup at the Out of the Blue Gallery in Cambridge.

Jack Powers—no matter what you thought of him-- inspired countless people. He inspired me to start the Ibbetson Street Press that publishes poetry books like Stone Soup did. He truly believed poetry could transform things, and as he put it “You translate yourself when you write a poem.” This quote needs no translation…it comes from the heart—may he rest in peace.

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