James Broughton, Denver 1962. Photograph by Arnold Gassan.
My first encounter with James Broughton, whose "Advice to Poets" appears on the [paper] cover of this issue, resulted from stumbling upon a photograph of him in the mid-1970s—nude, grottoed, arms outstretched in manful celebration of Blake's "Glad Day"—Albion rising from Satanic Mill slavery. The boldness! Then in his early sixties, Broughton was making body-poetry long before the rise of less sacred, more visceral performance artists began coating their bodies in paint, shit, and whatever else. Broughton's uninhibited identification with Blake and other spiritual saints presaged what I would find in his poetry and endeared him instantly.
Soon thereafter I discovered my friends at The Jargon Society had published books by Broughton, including his first collected poems, A Long Undressing, which featured a more modest cropping of the photo on the cover. I took this synchronic event as permission to write Broughton and begin reviewing his books, as well as studying them. James authored more than 20 books of poetry and made 23 films. Over the years I was privileged to draw others' attention to James's work. For example in a North Carolina gay newspaper, The Front Page, I wrote: "The perennial laughing man of God, Broughton zigzags between sage and clown, pervert and angel, kamikaze linguist and classical virtuoso, Mother Goose and St. James the Divine. Graffiti for the Johns of Heaven is a manifest of fleshly pleasure, a bawdy, tumescent attack on bigotry and the fettering impulse of Empire and institution." The following year, reviewing "Ecstasies" in The Advocate, I concluded: "In a world tottering into paranoid conservatism, Broughton's voice cries out of our wilderness with a powerful vision of universal love."
Eventually, in 1992, my friend, experimental film-maker Tom Whiteside, and I arranged a visit by James and his partner, Joel Singer, to Duke University to screen a number of James's films. (His film The Bed won a special jury award at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival. In 1975 Film Culture and the American Film Institute awarded him a lifetime achievement award.) In 1998 Black Sparrow published Packing Up for Paradise: Selected Poems 1946-1996. My review in the Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review stated: "Broughton's work contains much merriment without being stupid, much joy without being sentimental, much high seriousness without being pedantic. He crafts his poems in a way so childlike as to seem ineptly outmoded, while insinuating his vision into the reader with irrefutable energy. No other American avant-garde artist can claim the bountiful lightness of his work, nor the ease with which he obliterates opposites while exposing hypocrisy."
James took issue with my use of the word "ineptly" in the review. I stand by it. There is an awkward, naïve, seemingly overly-poetic, innocence in his poems which the unskilled reader misinterprets as failed craft, rather than organic and conscious skill. Jim Cory, editor of Paradise, described James's themes as a "preoccupation with love and its relation to the soul. He espouses a point of view which sees the desire for sex and the desire for spiritual fulfillment as identical rather than opposites." Luckily, bent, soured, and tone-deaf critics never kept James from his dharma. In his last decades his originality, mercurial wit, and spiritual wisdom received accolades, including an award from the National Poetry Association. Like Blake, James will be rediscovered centuries from now and we'll be laughed at for our lack of vision.
James died at the age of 85 on May 17, 1999, after having been confined to his bed and a wheelchair after a stroke in 1996. As a result of his illness his missives to me became shorter and shorter. He said when his handwriting vanished he would too. His last card to me in early May was hardly readable, his words few. One final card included a photo of his silhouette looking out the window that had been his world the last few years. But this world never confined him, and his last message still urged ecstasy and a poetry of simplicity, child-like awe, boundless joy, and outrage at linguistic, political, moral, and religious mediocrities.
James had many alter-egos, including Sister Sermoneta of San Francisco's Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Visited since the age of three by his spirit-guide Hermy. James crafted with Zen-like humor poems and films as light as a feather, and as deep as Christ's spoken words. Film Culture referred to James as "the grand classic master of Independent Cinema." Jonathan Williams crowned him and Hermy as "Big Joy" and it stuck. Alan Watts dubbed him San Francisco's uncrowned poet laureate. Robert Duncan said, "He writes poetry like a wicked stepmother's sister." There was no one like him and he will be missed.
In a recent interview with Erasmus Magazine, James declared, "Everything is song. Everything is silence. Since it all turns out to be illusion, perfectly being what it is, having nothing to do with good or bad, you are free to die laughing."
This 1999 Oyster Boy Review Poetry Annual is dedicated, then, to James. The poems herein celebrate his "Advice to Poets" by their responsible attention to his assertions. From E. Barnsley Brown's irreverent Dr. Seussian spoof "Twenty-four Top Place to Fuck" to Florence Nash's sacred scene "Damascus," through Andrea Selch's heart-rending, bitter love quarrel "The Ballad of the Bee" to Ann McGarrell's tender Ungaretti "translations," Broughton's imperishable surprise dwells.
We're please to offer poems by three extraordinary English writers (Thomas A. Clark, Harry Gilonis, and David Preece—we're still after Simon Cutts) whose objective minimalism I hope opens a continued exchange between them, other English writers, and Oyster Boy's poets and audience. Nova Scotian, George Eliott Clarke, like Broughton, works devastating miracles within traditional forms. As counterpoint, Charles Fort's surrealism and Jamal Lally's spiritual spoken words agitate within the rhythms and sounds of hip hop, wisdom literature, and the dream state.
Old friends are back, among them Thomas Meyer (whose long-awaited new and selected poems, At Dusk Iridescent, appears soon from The Jargon Society), Billy Little, Jonathan Williams, Ricky Garni, and Debra Kaufman. Kenny Fries, Gary McCullough, Will Inman, Jay Bonner (whose very young daughter's poems appeared in the last poetry annual), Robert West, and Romeo Z are among the new poets we expect to see again. Oyster Boy's cadre of poets grows. These poets don't stamp out poems from literary rubber casts formed from exclusions. Their visions broader than continents and local as a dive, they resist common taxonomy for vital difference without sacrificing embrace. We expect our poets to break boundaries and shake foundations. Readers will note from the range here that such can be accomplished through quiet, as well as loud, modes. May the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence whisk us along. And may James Broughton, now reunited completely with "Big Joy," trickle (or should I say "tickle") words through our pens.