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The American Bard in New Orleans

by MICHAEL SIMMONS

Ed Sanders’ language
advances
in a direction of production
which probably isn’t even guessed at
That is, it takes the earth
to make a feather fall.

— Charles Olson, 1964

They’d privatize your assholes
if they could get away with it!

— Ed Sanders, 2007

There is a giant in our midst and his name is Edward Sanders.

Ed was born in 1939 in Kansas City, Missouri. He moved to New York City in 1958 to attend NYU, from which he holds a degree in classics. A lifelong activist and peacenik, he was arrested in 1961 attempting to nonviolently body block a nuclear submarine. He survived to open a bookstore/community center/underground film studio/crash pad called the Peace Eye Bookstore on the Lower East Side. He published his own poetry as well as international lit-wigs Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Gregory Corso and East Village luminaries like Ted Berrigan in a zine called Fuck You/ A Magazine of the Arts.

In late 1964, he and brother poet Tuli Kupferberg co-founded the Fugs, the name borrowed from Mailer’s fornicatory euphemism. Along with drummer/comedian Ken Weaver and a rotating band of ace axemen, the Fugs released sixteen or so albums of satirical, left-wing, smutty, dope-addled rock and roll and mixed poetry and rock before the Doors. The Fugs went on hiatus in 1969 until 1984 when he and Tuli resuscitated the band with a stable and kick-ass line-up that continues to record and perform.

Ed also wrote a harrowing reportage of the clan Manson (The Family), novels (Tales of Beatnik Glory, the single greatest roman a clef about the 1960s), poems, chapbooks, liner notes, etc. He and his wife Miriam Sanders publish and edit the Woodstock Journal, currently online, in which they serve as the nattering nabobs of their hometown of Woodstock, NY. No avaricious real estate developer or profiteering polluter goes unexamined in Woodstock thanks to the Sanders’ efforts. Obeying his own urgings to develop a school of Investigative Poetry, he’s working on a nine-volume America: A History in Verse, three of which have been bound and pubbed and of which Volumes 1-5, the 20th Century will soon be available on CD as well.

In his youth, Sanders had the vision of the social movement that both cheerleaders and detractors refer to when they conjure the 1960s. While most people may be unaware of the bigness of Ed Sanders’ work, they’ve not missed his colorful feathers that have graced our landscape for decades. “Ed Sanders invented everything,” our mutual friend John Sinclair once told me. He’s a Renaissance hyphenate and one of the first public figures of his generation to live seamlessly within the realms of politics, art and fun. In the process of self-reinvention, he became the first cousin to Che Guevara’s paradigmatic New Man — albeit thoroughly American and anti-authoritarian. To list all of Ed’s prodigious accomplishments, we’d need more space than is available to us, given the reason I write these words: to praise the man’s contemporary recordings.

In particular, his latest: the masterful Poems For New Orleans . He read and recorded his history of the Crescent City and Hurricane Katrina with musical accompaniment over four months in 2007 and has released it on Paris Records, a label on which proprietor Michael Minzer has also released spoken word by Ginsberg, Kathy Acker, Robert Creeley and a collab twixt Corso and Marianne Faithfull. (It’s also available from Amazon.) Ed creates a people’s history in the Zinn tradition and his own American verse histories by tracing the story of New Orleans through the eyes of the fictitious Lebage family, from Lemoine to his great great great great granddaughter Grace.

The poet begins during the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and we meet a renegade Haitian revolutionary named Lemoine Lebage, a free man who joins up with Andrew Jackson’s ragtag army to kick the Brits out, despite Old Hickory’s slave-trading and mass Indian-murder. Critically wounded on the battlefield, Lemoine is nursed back to life by Marie Laveau (performed by Monique Moss), the legendary voodoo queen. After victory, Lemoine remains and builds a home in 1830 on “the edge of the French Quarter.”

Sanders’ describes the conditions of N.O. life in the first half of the 19th Century, including the abundance of goods, which he notes required cheap labor to acquire and distribute, enabling slavery. “Stuff is the parcel of never-enough,” he notes, referencing both greed and all that’s stampeded in its path, but also the productivity that resulted from the thriving manufacturing and farming that built America and is now gone with the search for even cheaper labor. With New Orleans’ emergence as a healthy, if woefully unequal, basin of wealth, the citizens looked for ways to have fun, resulting in krewes and parades and floats and balls and, most importantly, music. These celebratory manifestations are what tourists pay to witness.

One of Ed’s many fascinating practices is “speculative poetry.” He imagines William Blake visiting N.O. and muses that Mark Twain, who did indeed go to Mardi Gras around 1860, meets up with the extra-sensory Marie Laveau, who warns him of the impending bloodbath that will be the Civil War. Time passes and we meet Lemoine’s great granddaughter Marie Lebage, who works on populist Louisiana governor Huey Long’s campaign. Ed threads greed from ancient Rome through Bush II and notes that Long’s mottos were SHARE OUR WEALTH and EVERY MAN A KING and that he distributed free textbooks and instituted salaries for black teachers equal to those of whites before he was assassinated.

A most powerful poem on this set is “Unearned Suffering,” a spoken word duet with Susan Cowsill. It’s a chilling, stark paean to those “born with anvils on their souls,” the collaterally damaged of child labor, dangerous work, and those who make “the calm life glow for a few.” The piece ends with a comparison of Hurricane Katrina to “unearned suffering worthy of the days of Poseidon.” He then invokes the spirits of composer Charles Ives and poet Wallace Stevens, both of whom had been in the insurance racket (who knew?), and begs them to use their heavenly power to intercede on behalf of the storm’s swindled victims.

No Edward Sanders work would be wholly his without a dose of the poet’s unparalleled comic relief. Yeats wrote that “Gaiety transfigured all that dread” and so it is with Sanders. He’s the expert at finding mirth amidst tragedy, a survival technique that helps us retain our humanity under the worst circumstances. In Poems For N.O., he resurrects Johnny Pissoff, a charming redneck goofball who’s appeared in Ed’s oeuvre since 1968. Here, Pissoff and pals liberate FEMA trailers in Hope, Arkansas (of all places) and hijack them to New Orleans for the hurricane’s homeless.

After a poem about the disappearance and reappearance of wildlife during/after the deluge, comes “The Experience,” so dire that “Help! won’t help.” Speaking in the voice of a survivor who’s lost everything, Ed mournfully intones:

I am the guy whose legs tremble
on the edge of the ward

I’m Gone.

Yikes.

The poet evokes civil rights history through the deceptively simple losses of Katrina:

I miss my ironing board

and the letters you used to send me
after we were beaten in Selma

Like Obama’s recent speech, these thoughts in connection with Katrina remind that we’ve come a ways, but we have many a ways to go.

Before the flood, Lemoine’s descendant Grace Lebage (read/sung by Troi Bechet) still lived in the home he’d built in 1830. It is washed away and while her husband is arrested after shoplifting “a six pack of Yoo Hoos and a loaf of nothing good” for sustenance, Grace is raped.

Ajax who raped Cassandra
in a burning Trojan temple
came to New Orleans
It was early September

This horrid tale is followed by “Ash Wednesday and Lent,” a paean to hope and atonement.

Grace Lebage, the symbol of post-Katrina resurrection, organizes a house raising, then speaks the poet’s words:

“I’m a survivor, better than Bush!
I have more healing zeal than he ever could
and there’s a steel keychain around my anger!
I’m pregnant! I’m an American!
I dreamed a Better Dream!
Equity! Come on, Mr. And Ms. Moneybag Sam!
Let me see some breaches in your Money Dam!

Give me a house, America”

And she issues a warning: “Call it a down payment to ward off a Revolution!”

Ed ends with “Then Came The Storm: A Prayer For The Victims Of Katrina,” a combo of meticulously detailed, chronological, and dramatic reportage, meteorology, and statistics (Stat-Po, perhaps) and compelling lyric that traces the storm’s birth, onslaught, and wake. He pays loving trib to the “Crescent Flowerwhere jazz was the art,” lists the gaping disparity between those in power and those “beneath the pov line,” describes the supreme callousness that preceded Katrina despite warnings, and the tourist industry

which brought in five billion dollar-bones a year

to the anarcho-bohemian-freedomistic Polis
where everyone tried their fastest licks
on the Carpe Diem guitar

“You recall how it was,” Sanders reminds us and we do. Mayor Nagin’s (Ed calls him “The Nagster”) refusal to authorize more than twelve buses for evacuation, the mass of humanity trapped in the Superdome, the bodies of humans and animals floating everywhere. The poet compares this holocaust to “the dispersals of slavery.” In closing, he again inhabits the victims, asking:

Where’s my wife? Where’s my mother?
Where’s my child? Where’s my daddy?

and always the question, where is the path
that leads from the Gates of Wrath?

“No one yet has sung the way and even atheists pray for light of day,” the poet adds.

Edward Sanders’ Poems For New Orleans is one of the great American epic poems, on par with Whitman and Ginsberg. The New York Times’ about.com website named the recording The Best Poetry CD Of 2007, saying: “Sandersutilizes his Investigative Poetry techniques and aesthetic to give the full backstory to the unbearable tragedy still in progress (!) in New Orleans.” Good point. The ethnic cleansing that Ed appropriately places in historical context is unfolding in real time. We continue to pray for light of day.

Extra special note must be made of Co-Producer (with Minzer) and composer Mark Bingham. His score is as masterful as the words, and as all-encompassing: folk, ragtime, Dixieland, jazz, funk, stark percussion, you name it. The music for “Ash Wednesday and Lent” is particularly stunning: a bluesy, Mingusesque horn moan.

The totality of Poems For New Orleans speaks to the depth of Ed Sanders’ life, his art, his innovation. His no-limits empathy throughout his lifetime and in this sorriest of epochs. His insistence that we must all speak out and act. What happened to compassion? is the question Ed demands an answer for. He’s been on the frontlines for almost half a century and his current work proves that he’s showing no signs of compromise. In the process of making this demand, he magically transfigures the quest to end human suffering into art.

The album contains 15 poems and all 52 from the Poems For N.O. cycle will also be published in book form this coming August 19th by North Atlantic Books. Sanders, who evidently does not sleep, also has several other recent CDs available.

Thirsting For Peace – A brilliant solo home recording that features Ed playing instruments of his own invention (he’s the freaky Ben Franklin), including the microtonal Microlyre, under sung tributes to Goethe, Ginsberg, Satie, a section of Corso’s “Bomb,” and sections of his books Tales of Beatnik Glory and Thirsting For Peace In A Raging Century. The man has a beautiful tenor!

The Fugs Greatest Hits 1984-2004– Ed, Tuli, Steven Taylor, Scott Petito, and Coby Batty continue to make sometimes comedic, sometimes poignant agit-rock. Highlights include the anthem of indomitability “Refuse To Be Burnt Out” and AIDS mini-opera “Dreams Of Sexual Perfection.”

Sanders’ Truckstop and Beer Cans On The Moon, Ed’s first two solo albums reissued, originally on Reprise. From 1969 and 1972 respectively, these are Sanders at his most satirical and most country. The cat is from Missouri, after all.

MICHAEL SIMMONS is an award-winning journalist and currently filming a documentary on the Yippies. He can be reached at guydebord@sbcglobal.net.

 

 

 

 

Michael Simmons is a musician and journalist. He can be reached at guydebord@sbcglobal.net.

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