A Passport to Elsewhere by Richard Jurgens

A Passport to Elsewhere

by Richard Jurgens

 

Cover photo © 2013 by Surya Green

Cover photo © 2013 by Surya Green

Tennessee Williams in Bangkok
by Eddie Woods
Inkblot Publications, September 2013
Distributed by aftermathbooks.com
Providence, Rhode Island
ISBN-10: 0934301719
$15.00 US | $16.06 CDN | 12,11 EUR | Paperback
8×5 inches, 146pp

A couple of years ago I invited some hip young people to a literary evening at Café Brecht in Amsterdam. They were rather self-consciously cool: a lean former resident of Denver, Colorado, stone hash-pipe in hand; a secretive Irishman in a hoody; and a young Swedish woman with tattoos all over her shapely body and an eyebrow piercing.

When we got there, the American poet and writer Eddie Woods was already reading. It was him I’d brought them to hear. But a look of astonishment crossed the cool people’s faces when they tuned in. Soon they were nudging each other and giggling like schoolgirls in a porn shop. They couldn’t believe their ears. What? ‘Pussy’? Kali? Cunnilingus?

Later they went on about ‘that sex-obsessed dude’.  Poetry was supposed to be highfalutin’, edifying – and maybe even boring. You were supposed to endure it with a studious frown of concentration. Above all, ‘poetry’ didn’t make use of ‘improper’ words. Woods, it seemed, had breached some kind of poetic principle. Lord Rochester, clearly, had never been at their bedsides.

When I mentioned the incident to Woods a few days later he didn’t indulge in the responses usual to authors in such situations – defensive banter, sidelong inquiries about the literary status of the reported critics and the rest. No, he just laughed. ‘Principles?’ he said. ‘I don’t have principles – I have standards.’

Reading his new memoir, I came across one source anyway of this ready one-liner. Woods was in Bangkok, back in the early Seventies, in a very different situation. He and ‘Kim’, his girlfriend, a drag-queen and a prostitute were were having a good time – which meant that she wasn’t out on the streets earning money. He, meanwhile, as foreigner, wasn’t allowed to work. The situation was desperate. For the first time in many years of traveling, Woods decided to ‘call home’.

“Are you sure you want to do this?’ Kim asked… “I know it goes against all your…”

“All my what? My principles? I don’t have principles, I have standards. But fuck them, too. This is reality. And more importantly, this is you. You’ve done so much, now it’s my turn.” 1

Eddie Woods reading from Tennessee Williams in Bangkok at Bar Bukowski, Amsterdam (January 2014). Photo Copyright © by Bas Geerdink.

Eddie Woods reading from Tennessee Williams in Bangkok at Bar Bukowski, Amsterdam (January 2014). Photo Copyright © by Bas Geerdink.

I had to laugh. Clearly this was a traveling man’s ‘principle’ of sorts – or a rule of thumb maybe, worked out over many miles. Like another one, which he deployed to amusing effect during a recent conversation about his new book. I’d asked if he was planning to follow it with another, outlining other episodes of his extraordinary journey.

‘I never make promises,’ he said. ‘Only God can make promises, and even he gets it wrong.’

 

The Cosmic Hotel

 

I first met Eddie Woods in around 2004. I wanted him to write something for a cultural magazine which I was editing at the time. I’d come across a sharply written piece of his about the poetry scene in late 1970s Amsterdam. The piece included a story about the way certain luminaries of the alternative world in that city had hijacked time slots at a venue, the famous Melkweg.

‘”We need those nights,” they said.

“Yeah, right,” Woods observes. “Like Hitler needed Poland, maybe?”’ 2

When I read this I knew I had to get this guy to write for us. But he wouldn’t, claiming that he was recovering from depression and didn’t have the energy. In typical fashion, though, Woods turned the encounter around. Instead he got me interested in his most recent book, Tsunami of Love, which tells the story of a catastrophic love affair such as can happen only to a man who thinks he’s seen it all.

I liked the book and reviewed it. As we got to know each other better, I also got to know the work of friends and colleagues of his. I’d read Kerouac, Burroughs, Kesey, Ginsberg of course. And Henry Miller, their great literary forefather.

Now I began to discover the worlds of other interesting residents of the Cosmic Hotel. Writers such as Herbert Huncke, Jack Micheline, Harold Norse, Ira Cohen, Bill Levy – who, with their more famous ‘brothers’, made up the Beat generation. And more, of course, about Eddie Woods himself.

 

Getting There

 

In literary-historical terms, Eddie Woods could almost be said to belong to the Beats. ‘Almost’ but not quite. This for two reasons. Firstly, he was born rather later than the other heroes of the post-war road. And secondly, like them, he always went his own way.

Paradox, as we’ve seen, is at the heart of membership of an individualistic generation. As Woods himself would be the first to point out, the ‘Beat’ label is an approximation, if not meaningless. Membership of any generation or a ‘style of thinking’, as he argues in one of his poems, is not a matter of timing but of inclination.

 

… I got there, eventually, to the Sixties.
Maybe got there better.
In the Seventies.
The Eighties.
Into the Nineties.
Caught up with it all:
the dope, the dreams,
the music and the scenes.

 

Here, Woods persuades us that he might have missed Woodstock, but he ‘kept the best of it/and threw out the rest’. He adds that he’s ‘still doing it today/well into my sixties.’ A slick performance. If this man hadn’t been a decadent, he would have been a Jesuit.

Born in 1940, in Jamaica, Queens, he hit the road early, in his teens, and worked variously as a short-order cook, a computer programmer, a dog-handler in the US Air Force and an encyclopaedia salesman in Germany. Later he was a journalist, a gay bar manager, and a radio DJ. Over the next couple of decades his personal odyssey took him to Iran, Afghanistan, India, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bali, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Japan. Then Spain, England, and, for short spells, back to the US.

Finally settling in Amsterdam, he was the editor of Ins & Outs, a magazine which lasted three editions that became legendary. A second round of editions of Ins & Outs were produced some years later, featuring work by Paul Bowles, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso, among others. The press also published books by William Levy and Woods, as well as audio cassettes of performances by Harold Norse and Jack Micheline.

Woods has published in the Berkeley Barb (an underground paper favoured by Allen Ginsberg on occasion), The Bystander, Odalisque, Sensitive Skin, Exquisite Corpse and Beat Scene. He has also appeared on stages with Burroughs and Patti Smith. By my reckoning he has published four books of poetry, 30 Poems, Sale or Return, The Faerie Princess and Tsunami of Love.

Busy as they were with living, writers on the road often have some difficulty getting into print. They have to self-publish, or get published fairly late in life. In this, Eddie Woods is indeed a member of his generation. A prodigious adapter, though, he has adopted the Internet. A selection of his poems is to be found on his website, as well as in numerous international (online) magazines.

In outline, his poems are generally vivid verbal photographs that read deceptively simply at first, though they contain hidden depths and shoals. They cover a range of subjects, including gay encounters, lonely moments, declarations of love to female lovers, witty commentary, letters to family and political critique.

One of his major themes is the celebration of prostitutes as ‘the only true saints/humankind has ever known’. Another is his celebration of sex with both men and women – Woods is bisexual, or as he likes to say, ‘human sexual’. It was a poem on the subject of sex with a woman that so shocked my prim young companions that night.

 

Beat camarados

 

For the post-war Americans, unlike their classicist forebears, there was no real distinction between living and creating. The creative process being what it is, this sometimes resulted in a certain degree of moral anarchy. A picture has emerged of them as scruffy opportunists. If the stories are to be believed, they could not always trust each other. Dean Moriarty’s easy abandonment of his friends on a whim serves as an example.

Ira Cohen liked to tell a story about Herbert Huncke, who lived as a hobo for many years. Huncke phoned Cohen in New York to ask if he knew anyone who wanted a Remington typewriter. Cohen said no, but he’d let him know if he heard anything. A few minutes later someone else happened to phone. The Remington of a mutual friend had been stolen, he said; did Cohen know where to get another one? Cohen told him to phone Huncke.

So sure, literary labels are deceptive at best. Woods defines himself thus: ‘I am the gangster poet of this age. And I have enough fucking ammunition to wipe out as much opposition as will ever come up against me.’

Nevertheless, in his subjects, as well as his styles, Woods’ life and work demonstrate a major premise of the Beats: that a living literature manifests and provokes a vital connection to life as it is lived and felt today, whenever that is. What counts, they assert, is the modern world, with its new complexities, which in their case include sex, drugs and be-bop. Or, updating this sometimes unacknowledged influence to later times, rock ‘n’ roll. Or hip-hop.

Given all this, it is easy to forget that there was a spiritual side to the American post-war vision of life/art. As so often, the Beats were there first. Kerouac famously, if disingenuously, connected the spirit of the Beats to the ‘beatific’. Allen Ginsberg, it is worth noting, also produced a ‘definition’ of the generation in an image that he conjured in a 1965 speech directed at the Hell’s Angels of California, who were threatening to break up an anti-Vietnam demonstration. Attempting to persuade these monsters of the highway that their hipster neighbours were really spiritual cousins, he wrote:

The great image – which all can buy – is your own ideal Image –
WHITMAN’s free soul, camarado, also of Open Road.

A forlorn hope, surely. Yet if anyone could persuade the Angels of anything, it was Ginsberg, as Hunter S Thompson noted.

The outlaws had never encountered anyone like Ginsberg: they considered him otherworldly. ‘That goddamn Ginsberg is gonna fuck us all up,’ said Terry. ‘For a guy that ain’t straight at all, he’s about the straightest sonofabitch I’ve ever seen. Man, you shoulda been there when he told Sonny he loved him… Sonny didn’t know what the hell to say.’ 3

Woods captures something of this in a column he wrote for the Bangkok Post recalling the ‘mid-Fifties heyday’ of the famous writers of that generation. A scan of the piece is included in his new memoir about that time, Tennessee Williams in Bangkok.

From the vantage of 1970, it was already clear that the Beat generation, or style, or whatever, hadn’t lasted long. Ginsberg had settled into a quieter mode after the raging of his famous ‘Howl’. Kerouac was dead and no one was reading him anymore. A few years before, Ferlinghetti had published his poem famously announcing the end of that era. But Woods remembered that pre-hippie era with fondness as a time ‘when the idea was not to opt out but to seek, to scour the world and search the soul, really looking for answers.’

In one sense,Tennessee Williams in Bangkok is a record of his encounter with the great American playwright, who visited Bangkok twice during his career – the second time when Woods happened to be living and working there. But in another sense, it is about a memorable love affair of that time and the train of events it set motion.

His own exploration of the world as a writer, his Beat, was just beginning.

 

Photo of Tennessee Williams, 1974 Copyright © 1974, 2013 by Gerard Malanga.

Photo of Tennessee Williams, 1974 Copyright © 1974, 2013 by Gerard Malanga.

A star in Bangkok

Tennessee Williams, of course, occupies a particular prominent place in the American ‘plan of Olympus’. He was the revered author of some of the most celebrated plays in America’s theatrical repertoire. During the late 1940s and 1950s, pieces of his such as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof redefined the possibilities of the stage.

In his own lifetime that place was partly defined by his work and partly by his public personality, as that was perceived – ‘that artifice of mirrors’, as he put it. Success made him a millionaire, but it came suddenly after years of obscurity and it had its costs, which he described in a famous essay. 4

In the years following, he struggled with bouts of depression, which fueled periods of alcohol and drug dependency. His work became more experimental and less well accepted. To get away from the falseness of his public persona, he would hit the road – anywhere where ‘my public self… did not exist … and [where] my natural being was resumed.’

It was during one of his more-or-less random tours of other parts of the world that he visited Bangkok in 1970. Woods was working as a journalist with a local paper when he first met the famous playwright at a press conference in a swish hotel in that city. He and a friend offered to show the visitor around the underground, which meant the gay scene. This is what provides the initial narrative impulse of the book.

To explain what this means, though, Woods must tell us how he himself arrived in the city, and of his discoveries there. Some entertaining scene-setting in Bangkok follows. However, the main action occurs elsewhere.

When Williams decides that he is bored of Bangkok and wants to see something else, Woods seizes on the opportunity to travel with him to Singapore, where he introduces him to Kim, his drag-queen lover, and the lifestyle of which she is part. Williams, not a naive man by any means, is astonished by what he learns about the transformative capacity of human nature.

The story of how Woods meets Kim is a gem of the anecdotal style that he uses to good effect throughout the book. He’s in Singapore, early 1970, broke. One night he goes to Bugis Street, ‘an ongoing barrage of bright and crude coloured lights, odors sweet and pungent from the countless food stalls and the constant clashing of incongruous music, both melodious and rank.’

Sitting at a sidewalk table, an empty glass in front of him, he contemplates ‘the dazzle of comely trans-lovelies’. A spectacularly beautiful ‘ladyboy’ approaches him.

‘”Hello.”

“Hello.”

“I can sit?”

“Why not?”

“Feel rich enough to buy me a beer?”

“No.”

“Then I better buy you one,” she says.

“Okay.”‘ 5

But the book is more than a mere string of anecdotes. Tennessee Williams is a real presence. We get a clear sense of him as person – his fastidiousness about wine, his horror of the cockroaches in the Raffles Hotel. We see him, having just returned to Bangkok, pulling out a stash of weed that he had innocently smuggled across one of the most notorious borders in the world. We get a glimpse of him bounding up and down the stairs of ‘death houses’ of Singapore, saying that ‘a writer wants to see everything’. And in one revealing moment, we see him in a more vulnerable mood. This is, in a sense, one of the main points of this story.

Coming down to the hotel bar one day, Woods finds Tennessee Williams sitting with his head in hands. He asks him what the matter is. ‘I don’t know what to do with my life,’ the famous playwright replies.

For Woods, this is a transforming moment. His explanation of why will be understood by anyone who ever aspired to anything different, or thought that the lives of the famous are in some way inwardly different in quality from those of other folk. For that is what Woods was, essentially, at the time – an aspirant writer. His answer to the famous man will inspire sympathetic laughter.

 

A Passport to Elsewhere

 

As the Dutch-American writer bart plantenga remarks, Woods is a ‘non-American with an American passport’, and his travel document has always been ‘a passport to elsewhere’. And at one point in the book Woods quotes Basho approvingly – the journey itself is home etc.

Nevertheless the fact is that, like Kerouac going home to Mom’s to write, like Kesey in La Honda, he too had to put down temporary roots somewhere. More latterly – except for an ‘interlude’ of six years, when he lived in Devon with the woman for whom he later wrote Tsunami of Love – he has lived in Amsterdam, a city which he celebrates in several of his poems.

Having this base enabled him to accumulate and maintain an archive of ‘substantial numbers of manuscript materials, correspondence, scarce and rare books, photographs,… art prints, [and] numerous silk screens’. 6 It included material relating to many of the major figures of the Beat and post-Beat scenes.

The archive would have been even more complete had Woods not sent ‘sheaves of manuscripts, letters, all kinds of “things”‘ up in flames during a moment of spiritual renunciation in Bali in 1972, we learn in his memoir. As he recounts the story, he was sitting on the porch of a place he’d hired near the beach in Kuta one day, typing on his all-metal Hermes Baby, when a passing American asked what he was doing. Writing letters, he replied.

In some synchronous way, though, the idle curiosity of that passing stranger raised a question that was probably already in his mind.

Tennessee Williams took coals to Newcastle. I schlepped
a shitload of crap to paradise… Suddenly I thought, “no
words necessary in the here and now.” And so I burned
everything.’ 7

In 2003 Woods’ archive was bought by Stanford University, which describes his collection as embodying ‘an understudied, indeed largely undefined, segment of the “new American poetry and prose” of the post-1945 period – namely, the expatriate and, to a certain extent, surrealist school that has numerous connections with the Beats but is essentially an independent, coherent body of work.’

So – even the well-informed, energetic, and amply funded American academic scene has apparently missed a significant chapter in that country’s literary history. Among other issues, this no doubt reflects a very practical problem of scholarship. To adequately study the lives and work of writers who spend much of their lives on the road would surely require travel and the negotiation of foreign realities, including languages, places and cultures that may be unfamiliar.

 

Kim’s Cool

 

Despite the memoir’s title, Tennessee Williams vanishes from the pages of Tennessee Williams in Bangkok about half way through, returning only as the spectral object of the author’s later reflections.

The other major subject is an appreciation, sharpened by a renewed sense of loss on looking back at that time, of the drag-queen Kim’s uniqueness in his life. The life-changing, transgressive, category-changing nature of the relationship becomes clear from the minute they go to bed together – ‘her cock bolt hard inside me’. He lives with her for three months in her Katong apartment, which she shares with six other ‘sisters’ looked after by a ‘fat, jovial amah’. It is she who introduces him to the 1960s – grass, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles. She shows him every corner of the city, encourages him to write, and gives him a new perception of what life can be.

‘Somewhere inside of what I think is my head, my brain, whatever,’ Woods remarks of that time with her, ‘a host of wrongheaded notions goes up in smoke and smithereens.’

And yet when they see each other for the last time, Woods recalls, all he can think of is to give her a photograph of himself at age fifteen. Prior to that he’d been a partner in various businesses in Thailand – a news agency and a gay bar among them. Daily contact with decisions-makers, with money, with freebies and fawning appreciation inflate his ego and turn him, for a while, into a different sort of man than he set out to be.

[All this] allowed my persona to change for the worse.
Egomaniac worse. All me-centred. I’m in a Buddhist country,
with temples everywhere in plain sight. Day after day seeing
hundreds of monks on the streets with their begging bowls.
And Buddha and his teachings are the furthest thing from my
mind. 8

Several other encounters with reality, including a meeting with a dictator, an interview with the founder of Singapore, a public execution, the auto-da-fe in Bali and the gentle guidance of a Buddhist monk in Ceylon will be necessary before he recommits to his necessary path.

 

Eddie Woods in Bangkok

 

The publication of this memoir – by Inkblot Publications, a small press operating out of Providence, Rhode Island – is evidence of a growing interest in an ‘understudied, indeed largely undefined’ chapter in American literary history. And also, more particularly in the work of Eddie Woods himself, after years in the shadows of his archive.

The title is, of course, a reference to Mohammed Choukri’s well-known account of Tennessee Williams’ visit to Tangier. Choukri’s book was essentially a series of diary notes about his encounters with the famous playwright. Woods’ book, though, is no everyday diary. Even less is it a hagiographic account of an encounter with a famous writer. Instead, it is really a lively exercise in that classically American theme – a writer’s coming-of-age.

Certainly, Tennessee Williams is integrally involved. As Kim is. Woods is too good a storyteller to miss describing these people as people, and their impact on him. But neither of them is its major character. Eddie Woods is.

To me there’s a real health in this. Woods’ account of Tennessee Williams doesn’t kowtow to or make self-beneficial use of the ‘artifice of mirrors’ which the playwright noted as being an unfortunate side-effect of fame. For one thing, the playwright was, and still is, famous in his own right. He didn’t then and doesn’t need another bout of celebrity-worship. Here we get the real man, in a real suit, with his sudden smile, the expression in his eyes. And once we also see him with his head in his hands.

Above all, in this book we get the gentle, funny, streetwise transvestite – Kim. And Eddie Woods, the ‘New York neurotic’ at large in the world, with his virtuosic use of ‘the American language’. Tennessee Williams in Bangkok is not a large tome. If the author follows up on an intimation (not a promise) in a recent interview – we will get another installment of this prodigious journey soon. UG

___________________________

[1]Tennessee Williams in Bangkok, p 31

[2]Other World Poetry Newsletter. http://eddiewoods.nl/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/Newsletter_3.pdf, accessed 26 January 2014

[3]Hunter S Thompson, Hell’s Angels. Penguin, London, 2003, p 258

[4] ‘A Streetcar Named Success’, New York Times, 30 November, 1947.

[5] Tennessee Williams in Bangkok, p 13

[6]Eddie Woods Archive (Stanford University) http://www-sul.stanford.edu/depts/hasrg/ablit/amerlit/EddieWoods.htm, accessed 19 January 2014.

[7]Tennessee Williams in Bangkok, pp 114 -116.

[8]Tennessee Williams in Bangkok, p 93.

___________________________

 

Eddie Woods, Tennesee Williams in Bangkok, Inkblot Publications, Rhode Island, 2013. Available at Amazon.

 

Photo of Richard Jurgens Copyright © by Susan Janssen.

Photo of Richard Jurgens Copyright © by Susan Janssen.

Richard Jurgens is a poet, writer, editor and translator. A former exile, he worked as a freelance journalist and staffer with publications in South Africa and Europe. In 2004 he co-founded Amsterdam Weekly, an alternative cultural newspaper that won 12 European Press awards.

His first book of poetry, One Summer, was published in 2010 and in an e-book format in 2013 with Barncott Press (London). His first novel, The Incident on Heron Island, is due out with Barncott in print-on-demand and e-book formats soon.

He has won prizes for both his poetry and poetry translations. He is currently completing a second book of poetry, The Chipre Accord, as well completing a translation of the poetry and lyrics of the Afrikaans poet, Gert Vlok Nel. He divides his time between Amsterdam and Johannesburg.

 

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2 Responses to A Passport to Elsewhere by Richard Jurgens

  1. Antonio Pineda

    Richard jurgens review of Ed woods is a historical look at the beat and post beat movements. I was exposed to the same standards as Ed by michael McClure as a young hippie. Michael encouraged us to contribute to society via art. It took years for the message to sink in. In a sense I consider myself a Neo Beat and ED Woods as well although he may have his own way about him. My poetry and prose are inspired by Michael McClure and the San Francisco Renaissance and I feel the same qualities in Ed and his work which I have been aware of since forever. Thanks Richard JUrgens loved it

  2. Elizabeth kleinveld

    Great article as always!

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