Bob Kaufman Alley, in San Francisco’s neighborhood of North Beach, is tiny—narrow and hardly a block in length. Only a smattering of locals and dedicated poetry aficionados around the world remember whom it is named after—the eccentric street poet-prophet, whose personal history remains a mystery to this day. Kaufman’s improvised street performances, his 30 (or more) arrests, Jewish and Caribbean roots, involuntary shock treatment, and decade-long vow of silence are touched on in Billy Woodberry’s And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead, a new documentary that honors the poet’s work and life.
Though cleaned up, these streets still bear witness to the pulse of hipness and desperation that inspired Kaufman’s “Heavy Water Blues:”
Consolidated Edison is threatening to cut off my brain,
The postman keeps putting sex in my mailbox,
My mirror died, and & can’t tell if I still reflect,
I put my eyes on a diet, my tears are gaining too much weight
Here, a classic blues-styled litany of troubles meets urban imagery, surrealism, wit, playfulness, and puns. Though self-“reflection” is one of poetry’s trademark functions, this poet is no longer so sure he’s capable of reflecting, and in any case, his mirror stares back with Picasso-like enmeshment of the body and polis, violence, humor, and sorrow.
When anthologized, Kaufman’s work tends to appear alongside that of other Beats. And yet, in one of the documentary’s many interviews, Jack Hirschman—Kaufman’s friend and a legendary poet in his own right—points to Kaufman’s status as an outsider, as not really belonging among the Beats. “It wasn’t simply that he was Black, or Jewish … it had more to do with his politics,” a striking comment that sets the mood for the documentary. Given the radical, groundbreaking inclusivity, and counter-cultural politics of the Beats—how could Kaufman have been excluded? Perhaps, for Bob Kaufman and Jack Hirschman “politics” has meant something very different than what it means to many of us. The film doesn’t offer easy answers; it allows the question to unfold.
The recent Bay Area premiere of And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead at BAMPFA (Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive) was a homecoming of sorts. It brought Kaufman’s legacy back to the environs where the poet spent most of his writing life. The celebratory event featured California Poet Laureate Emeritus Al Young, San Francisco’s third Poet Laureate Devorah Major, and Justin Desmangles—poet and scholar who is working on an opera about Kaufman’s life.
Filmmaker Billy Woodberry, who teaches at UCLA and is one of the key figures of the “L.A. Rebellion” collective (also known as “Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers”), tells Kaufman’s story in a fragmentary, lyrical manner, with many silences, with humor and honesty. There is no doubt that the film’s form takes its cue from the poet’s own work. Indeed, Kaufman’s “way of expression and composition could be a kind of a guide … and poetry was the most important part of this,” said Woodberry in a phone interview.
It only makes sense that poetry—rather than fact-chasing and archival revelations—is the guiding, central force of this film—and so poems, recited by various voices, appear throughout. In a masterful counterpoint to the recitation are numerous long shots of photographs, street-life reels, and relevant historical footage, shifting in rhythmic motion. That Woodberry could get this much life out of minimalistic cinematography is testament to his own commitment to art that resists passivity and invites the mind to think alongside these poems, which loom larger than any given fact and carry with them a deeper complexity than prosaic narration could express. As Kaufman himself wrote in “Cincophrenicpoet:”
A cincophrenic poet called
a meeting of all five of
him at which four of the
most powerful of him voted
to expel the weakest of him
who didn’t dig it, coughing
poetry for revenge, beseech-
ing all horizontal reserves
to cross, spiral, and whirl
It is the poets’ province to not only invent new words but also, through neologisms, to open new social and psychological perspectives. The poem’s title jokingly hints at a combusting five-way personality split; it employs a hybrid of a puns and a foreign word to underscore the sense of alienation. Irony, beat lingo, and surrealism allow the poet to address the nature of power dynamic, even as contradictory forces battle within one’s own mind.
Though there’s a great deal of contradiction between Kaufman’s biographies, the story that counts among his ancestors a voodoo-practicing Caribbean grandmother and an observant German Jew seems to persist. As poet and scholar Maria Damon suggested in an email, “It could have been invented around him and he allowed it to stick, for the mystique of the gemishte.” Whether it is Kaufman’s father who was Jewish (as the story goes) or his grandfather, or an even more distant ancestor didn’t matter a great deal to the poet himself. In the phone conversation, Woodberry suggested that he sees “acts of defiance and solidarity” in Kaufman’s attempt “to accept both sides of his heritage.” Moreover, added the filmmaker, “Why correct people? Jewish people and African Americans—why not identify? Jewish people stood with African Americans more than others did.”
In the film, James Smethurst, a professor of African American Studies at U.Mass.-Amherst, recalls that fellow poet Amiri Baraka considered Kaufman a “maximum Beatnik.” According to Smethurst, Kaufman was “uncompromising, most principled. Not the most extreme but the most principled in a sense that he made absolutely no concessions to bourgeois culture.” Is fixating on a particular identity a concession of a sort? Is mythic identity a viable way to dispose of such concessions? Or is it that Kaufman was way ahead of his time in his understanding of identity as something far more fluid and evolving?
The great American poet Kamau Daaood, in his own poem quoted in the film, writes of Kaufman: “his heart is a blue bulletproof vest/ New Orleans sufi with a Jewish moniker/ clutching the fury of silence with pregnant tongue.” Daaood, it seems, much like Woodberry, sees an act of defense and defiance in Kaufman’s radical embrace of contradictions.
One of those contradictions is alluded to in Daaood’s poem: Kaufman’s legendary near decade-long vow of silence, which he took following the news of Kennedy’s assassination. Although Kaufman did not seclude himself and, it appears, occasionally did speak, it is certainly clear that he went into a self-imposed withdrawal and practiced a form spiritual resistance and healing. Strikingly, as several people interviewed in the film point out, his silence had also a lot to do with the forced shock treatment Kaufman received following his arrest while on a trip in New York. Though a poetic act, it was surely a sacrifice as well—given that Kaufman was a performance poet who often composed on the spot, revising his work mid-reading, and actively participating in the life of the artistic community.
A few of Kaufman’s books were published in his lifetime. The first collection appeared in France, where he was soon dubbed “Black Rimbaud” and consequently read more widely than in the United States. Eventually, sporadic publications at home followed. Yet, as Jack Hirschman elucidates in the film, Kaufman never made it in the way some of the Beats did because he was, quintessentially, a “street poet.” In order for poetry to remain his vocation, he could never accept it as a career.
When I asked Billy Woodberry what it means to be a street poet, he replied that the street is “the place of the people who hang out, who have irregular schedules and rules. You need to know how to read it and survive it. Also, as in Baudelaire—it’s the place of the people, not just derelicts, where public and civil society gather, and contest the government. It can become a place of confrontation, place of knowledge, place of movement.”
Also featured in the film is editor and author Raymond Foye, who talks about the peculiar layout of many of Kaufman’s poems, and his trademark incessant usage of capital letters: “The way his poems are written in capital letters, that’s the way Bob spoke. He spoke in italics and capital letters. Everything was terribly urgent when he came up to you and said something, and that’s the way the poems were.” Perhaps the single best-known big-lettered poem of the sort is the searing and hilarious “ABOMUNIST MANIFESTO:”
ABOMUNISTS JOIN NOTHING BUT THEIR HANDS OR LEGS,
OR OTHER SAME.
ABOMUNISTS SPIT ANTI-POETRY FOR POETIC REASONS
ABOMUNISTS DO NOT LOOK AT PICTURES PAINTED
BY PRESIDENTS AND UNEMPLOYED PRIME MINISTERS.
IN TIMES OF NATIONAL PERIL, ABOMUNISTS, AS REALITY
AMERICANS, STAND READY TO DRINK THEMSELVES
TO DEATH FOR THEIR COUNTRY.
ABOMUNISTS DO NOT WRITE FOR MONEY; THEY WRITE
THE MONEY ITSELF.
ABOMUNISTS BELIEVE ONLY WHAT THEY DREAM ONLY
AFTER IT COMES TRUE.
ABOMUNIST CHILDREN MUST BE REARED ABOMUNIBLY.
ABOMUNIST POETS, CONFIDENT THAT THE NEW LITERARY
FORM “FOOT-PRINTISM’ HAS FREED THE ARTIST
OF OUTMODED RESTRICTIONS, SUCH AS: THE ABILITY TO
READ AND WRITE, OR THE DESIRE TO COMMUNICATE,
MUST BE PREPARED TO READ THEIR WORK AT DENTAL
COLLEGES, EMBALMING SCHOOLS, HOMES FOR UNWED
MOTHERS, HOMES FOR WED MOTHERS, INSANE ASYLUMS,
USO CANTEENS, KINDERGARTENS, AND COUNTY JAILS.
ABOMUNISTS NEVER COMPROMISE THEIR REJECTIONARY
ABOMUNISTS REJECT EVERYTHING EXCEPT SNOWMEN.
“Abomunist” is not a word we’re familiar with but one we can understand in the constellation of related words that may have inspired it—communism, abolition, ablution, and abomination. This, perhaps, allows us a glimpse into the sorts of “politics” Jack Hirschman was referring to. Political stance brings together invention, irony, parody, history, surrealism, and protest—speaking to wide masses, yet being a party of one, accessible yet mysterious.
Did this film bring throngs of tourists looking for Kaufman to North Beach? Nope. But perhaps more than a few will be inspired to look deeper for resonances of Kaufman’s work and ideals. A few minutes after our phone call, I received an email from Woodberry, with a quote from Federico García Lorca, the Spanish poet-martyr and a key influence for Kaufman: “Poetry is something that walks the street. It moves, passing right beside us. All things have their mystery, and poetry is the mystery of all things.”
To read more of Jake Marmer’s encounters with modern poets for Tablet magazine, click here.
Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of Cosmic Diaspora (2020), The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). He has also released two jazz-klezmer-poetry records: Purple Tentacles of Thought and Desire (2020, with Cosmic Diaspora Trio), and Hermeneutic Stomp (2013).