GOODBYE, TED JOANS
Don’t let the minute spoil the hour.
Ted Joans died April 25th, 2003 at the age of 74. He was alone in his apartment in Vancouver, British Columbia. His body wasn’t found until May 7th.
It seems odd–and was in fact merely accidental–that Ted should have died alone: he was an immensely social man who knew everybody and who, though often “difficult,” could charm the birds out of the trees.
Ted’s poem, “I Too, At the Beginning,” mournfully echoes a poem by one his heroes, Langston Hughes: “At the beginning / There were only / Three darker brothers / Born Beat and hipper-than-thou . . . We, three, also swung America.”
The three writers to whom Joans referred are himself, LeRoi Jones (who changed his name to Amiri Baraka in 1966), and Bob Kaufman. Of the three, Joans is least known, least represented in anthologies. Work of his appears only in the hardcover version of The Portable Beat Reader, not in the paperback; he has no work at all in the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature. His books, beginning with Beat Poems (1957), have been mostly published by small presses in the United States and abroad and are difficult to find. “I am in need,” he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, “Je Me Vois (I See Myself),” “of a publisher, a literary agent, a patron, or some foundation grant that has no strings (chains) attached.” Though some Beat artists managed to make a fair amount of money, Joans remained, in his own phrase, among the “VIPs (Very Impecunious Poets).”
Lack of money didn’t prevent him from traveling, however, and he was influenced by European and African as well as American poetry. “Jazz is my religion,” he said, “and Surrealism is my point of view.” His “spiritual fathers” were Langston Hughes and André Breton.
Joans worked in many media: he was a filmmaker, a musician, and a painter/collagist as well as a poet. As a “jazz poet of the Beat Generation,” he was at the forefront of New York’s Greenwich Village “scene” in the 1950s, reading regularly at places such as Cafe Bizarre, Cafe Wha, and Cafe Rafio. “I had developed a method of reading my poems that was similar to the way I blew trumpet,” he wrote. “Each time I took a solo on my horn, on any of the standard songs, that solo would inevitably be different . . . I would soar off into spontaneous creativity that would sometimes surprise me as well as my fellow musicians. This is my method of creating jazz poetry which is totally different from most of the so-called self-styled ‘jazz poets.’”
Ted Joans remained active, problematical, creative, energetic until the day of his death. The rhino was his totem animal. He wrote to me a few years ago, “I was never in the rat race, only the rhino race in search of the marvelous.” He was an “unreconstructed black man” long before Quincy Troupe formulated the concept in order to talk about Miles Davis. Like Miles Davis, Joans was deeply American and constantly on the edge, an artist whose parameters were not easy to define; like Davis, he remained in motion.
Ted Joans is mourned by everyone who knew him, but particularly by Laura Corsiglia, the young artist who was one of the deep loves of his life. One remembers how he wove both their names–and the idea of poetry–into the single word: LAURATED. (He made up words all the time. He had a phone number to which you could send faxes: he called it a “faxophone.”) With Laura he published Wow: Poems by Ted Joans with drawings by Laura Corsiglia — the kind of book he had published for years: a limited edition, elegant, with beautiful work by both poet and artist. Here is “Above Him” from that book:
I saw Senghor I was above him Not hovering Like a cloud or a helicopter but just a High-lofty-observing Poet Looking down At Senghor the poet Who hovers high Like a cloud or a heavenly helicopter filled with leaflets that shame betterflies' wings And rainbows end I saw Senghor the poet Dressed in contradiction.
Though Joans is still under-published, much of his work was recently made available in a selected poems, Teducation, published in 1999 by Coffee House Press and edited by Gerald Nicosia. This is a piece from that book in which the poet unabashedly and delightedly celebrates his love for watermelon:
It's got a good shape / the outside color is green / it's one of them foods from Africa It's got stripes sometimes like a zebra or Florida prison pants It's bright red inside / the black eyes are flat and shiny / it won't make you fat It's got heavy liquid weight / the sweet taste is unique / some people are shamed of it / I ain't afraid to eat it / indoors or out / it's a soul food thing / Watermelon is what I'm Talking about Yeah watermelon is what I'm talking about Watermelon
That is Ted being funny and dogmatic at the same time. Listen to those vivid, speech-driven rhythms!
What Ted Joans’ life was about was joy–that, and an egotism so intense that it transcended itself and became utter affirmation. Who could ever tell Ted anything?–yet he learned constantly and constantly surprised you by the depth of his observations. At other moments, one could be amazed by the sheer oddness of his opinions. Did garlic ever have a greater champion than Ted? Even as his life fell apart, he could tell you (often accurately) how to manage yours. When I knew him, he was actively assuming the role of Grand (and sometimes Grouchy) Old Man, yet he maintained as well a child-like joy and wonder. One felt that there was someone or something inside him that he was trying to protect: some kind of innocence, perhaps–one which he was making simultaneous efforts to annihilate and keep alive. “No bread, no Ted,” he announced frequently, yet he never really understood anything about money except how to live without it. I once called him “the last Bohemian.” If he was in a room, you couldn’t ignore him. “Now, here’s the bit,” Ted would say. The word “man” peppered his speech. If he made a mistake, he “goofed.” He loved to drink “black velvets”–a combination of proletariat beer and elite champagne.
I wrote about him: Who but Ted Joans–that’s J-o-a-n-s, not J-o-n-e-s–would have transformed the word “Surrealist” into “Sure, really I is”? This brilliantly playful, deeply serious (Groucho) Marxist has been creating exemplary art, music and poetry since the days of Beat-era Greenwich Village–since the day in 1955 when he and some friends stunningly denied the death of jazz great Charlie Parker by scrawling “BIRD LIVES” all over New York. *
An intimate of André Breton, Max Ernst and Paul Bowles, Joans was well aware of the African connections of Surrealism–knew that “Dada” was a word you could find in Africa. Joans was the original Rent-a-Beatnik, a hip cat from a 40s band who blew his way around the world from Cairo (pronounced “Cay-ro”), Illinois to Cairo, Egypt. He named his daughter daline, after Salvador Dali. He lived everywhere, did everything; spent time in Seattle, Timbuktu and Paris (which he attempted to “sell” in a poem). Ted Joans was the last hipster, the last bohemian, someone who astonished the young by magnificently asserting a way of life it never occurred to them existed. The best word for him is an ancient African one: “wow.” Do you want “an alternative life style”? Do you want poetry? Well, shut my mouth wide open:
* A friend writes, “Did you know that that formulation began with an Iowa postmaster who stamped ‘Bix Lives’ on some letters after Beiderbecke died in New York? Joans and his friends were certainly aware of that.”
NO TED, NO TED
a weary blues
Here’s the bit. No bread, no Ted
–Ted Joans (frequently)
in that small
on the chin
what a bum
I see a man
No one to sing us
no one to swing–
man, you gotta
get with it,
I’m with it, Ted.
— Jack Foley