THE POET KNOWS HE MUST
WRITE THE TRUTH,
EVEN IF HE IS
KILLED FOR IT, FOR THE
SPHINX CANNOT BE DENIED
— Bob Kaufman, “THE POET”
The life and times of Bob Kaufman, the influential and defiant Beat poet, are chronicled in Billy Woodberry’s spellbinding documentary, And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead. And while Kaufman may have died over thirty years ago, his beatific soul — “a spiritual mosaic” to quote poet A.D. Winans — still resonates worldwide. Kaufman was a prodigious poet whose work was a vital part of the spoken jazz poem-prose genre.
Kaufman was born to a German Orthodox Jew and a Catholic woman from Martinique on April 18, 1925, in New Orleans. He joined the U.S. Merchant Marines as a teenager and served for twenty years before settling in San Francisco. There he would frequent the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, and other coffeehouses and bars near and around North Beach, reciting his revolutionary brand of political and explosive poetry.
Kaufman’s life is explored beautifully by Woodberry, a filmmaker who pioneered the L.A. Rebellion three decades ago. He is a fitting artist to piece together Kaufman’s tumultuous life. Woodberry’s other screen credits include Bless Their Little Hearts, which has been honored as an essential work of Los Angeles cinema. That film won the InterFilm Ecumenical Jury award at the Berlin Film Festival and added to Library of Congress’ National Registry of Films in 2013.
And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead represents Woodberry’s seventh film credit, but his first directorial effort in decades. “The legacy of Kaufman’s poetry provides the dominant note in the film I ultimately made,” Woodberry said in a Director’s Statement upon the film’s release. “Given my strong commitment to struggles for political justice, my film also weaves his artistic triumph as a triumph of radical politics surviving and inspiring against all odds. It is only justice to the facts of Bob Kaufman’s life and times that this film must attempt to recall and chronicle the countless odds he faced to and his voice and project his vision.”
Woodberry’s quest to make a documentary of Bob Kaufman took decades. “A friend of mine had some books by [Kaufman] that she found in a used bookstore in Berkeley,” Woodberry said in a January 2016 interview with Keyframe magazine. “They were very dear to her, and she carried them all the time. I picked one up and read it.” This was in the 1980s, and upon reading more of Kaufman’s life as a modern vagabond poet, Woodberry knew he was destined to make the film two decades later. “You’re constantly encountering people who have a kind of investment in him, and they are interesting in themselves.” He began the film’s development in 2001.
One subject interviewed prominently Kaufman’s friend and fellow poet A.D. Winans. “First time I heard him read was in the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, which was right across the street from the old Coffee Gallery,” recalls Winans, in an early frame from the film. “People would come hoping that he would show up.”
Ther are many poignant moments throughout the film. Woodberry deftly interweaves iconic stills of the era — the late ’50s and ’60s — to coalesce with Kaufman’s surrealist poetry, which he often read at Co-Existence Bagel Shop and nearby joints in North Beach. “I look at Woodberry’s film, and it shows the power of black and white. It [mirrors] exactly the period of the time, as well as the interior of the arts,” E. Ethelbert Miller, a prominent poet and educator, told me after a screening of Woodberry’s film in Washington, D.C.
Shadow people, projected on coffee-shop walls
Memory formed echoes of a generation past
Beating into now.
Nightfall creatures, eating each other
Over a cup of coffee
It was around this time, 1959, in which Kaufman, and others, like Allen Ginsberg, founded Beatitude, a pivotal poetry magazine.
“They started [Beatitude] down on Grant Avenue — this place that later became a coffeehouse called Cassandra’s,” comments painter and writer Pierre Delattre. “After three issues, they couldn’t handle it anymore… Then it became like a drifting poetry magazine, and others took over, but Bob was the real founder of the magazine.”
Winans also suggests that Kaufman’s frequent run-ins with the law had as much to do with his political poetry, as his “bulletins” where he likened policemen to Nazis. “Adolf Hitler, growing tired of… burning Jews, moved to San Francisco and became a cop,” read one of Kaufman’s screed poems. Kaufman was arrested close to forty times for drunk and disorderly conduct, according to Winans.
Kaufman also broke the taboo of dating, and ultimately, marrying, white women. “In those days… you didn’t see a lot of black men with white women, so Bob would be harassed quite frequently,” says Winans. In 1944, Kaufman married Ida Berrocal and had one daughter, Antoinette Victoria Marie (Nagle). He married Eileen Singe, a white woman in 1958, and had one child, Parker, named after the great bebop saxophonist.
And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead plays like a dirge in some scenes, and a bebop poem the next. It is accompanied often with illuminating insights by many of Kaufman’s poet-peers, like the aforementioned Winans, Delattre, and Jack Hirschman, the prodigious and well-respected poet, translator and editor.
Kaufman, seen as an “American Rimbaud,” was perhaps the truest of Beats for remaining “apart” from the establishment until the end of his often-tragic life, argues Hirschman.
“I knew that there was this poet, and I read his work… and I thought he was terrific,” says Hirschman. “I didn’t know his exact relationship to the Beat movement, as such. He seemed to be [of the Beat generation] in one sense, but there was a quality that he was apart from it… I met him one day… in North Beach… he was a poet that was really respected by the others around. ”
Kaufman’s poetry was highly influenced by renowned literary figures like Federico Garcia Lorca and Hart Crane. Their presence also seeped within his poems. “These poets who are, in a way, political martyrs, and others are martyrs to their own overarching vision of what poetry is,” comments Maria Damon, a professor of English and Creative Writing.
They fear you Crane… You whispered a lot,
Pains they buried forever…
They hate you Crane,
Your surreal eclipses blot out their muted sun.
They miss you, Crane…
Your footprints are on their rotting teeth. They need you, Crane, their walking minds are worn to bony core…’
Hart Crane, the renowned symbolist poet, committed suicide by jumping overboard into the Gulf of Mexico in 1932.
After learning of President John Kennedy’s assassination, Kaufman took a Buddhist vow of silence that lasted until the end of the Vietnam War. In 1973, he wrote and recited the poem, “All Those Ships That Never Sailed:”
All those ships that never sailed
The ones with their seacocks open
That were scuttled in their stalls…
Today I bring them back
Huge and intransitory
And let them sail
It’s hard to picture a more authentic, bebop rhapsody of a documentary devoted to the life and times of one Bob Kaufman than the one made by Woodberry. It is a true work of art and personal vision. The film is unflinching, true, and at times, heartbreaking to endure, largely due to its depiction of an obdurate artist. “It was sort of my thing. He was a traveler. He was a voyager. He sends you on a journey,” says Woodberry in an interview while promoting the film.
And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead frequently features black and white stills of Kaufman, his contemporaries, and jazz players, all of which are deftly accompanied by the score of the era. “Adapting the harmonic complexities and spontaneous invention of bebop to poetic euphony and meter, he became the quintessential jazz poet,” says Raymond Foye, Kaufman’s long-time editor and publisher in an interview. (This particular statement is not said during in the film, but Foye adds his memories often throughout it).
“The Beat movement was an antenna,” Hirschman says while sitting outside Café Trieste, in North Beach. “Bobby was marginalized in an effect by the so-called… Beat movement. [It] had to be ironic, [due] to his blackness, even though there was an opening of, a loosening of the black-white relationship… he was a little too much; he was a provocative guy, and he lived a life of provocation. Bobby was a street poet.”
“Ginsberg and some of the others knew they were making literary history, and documented themselves better,” E. Ethelbert Miller told me. “More people know about [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti rather than him. I can go down the list. I think Ginsberg [and others] were more organized than someone like Kaufman.” In 1994, Miller published In Search of Color Everywhere: An Anthology of Africa American Writers, with Kaufman’s poetry significantly featured in the book.
Woodberry’s film addresses themes like institutional wrongdoing, which likely exacerbated Kaufman’s drifting presence. His experience with electroshock therapy while living in New York severely made him like a “shell of himself,” says Miller. His years living in New York were filled with personal trauma, including addiction, imprisonment and poverty. Being given electroshock treatment left Kaufman with the jitters for the rest of his life.
“When I was looking at this film, I went back and looked at the jazz musician Bud Powell, who also was treated with electroshock treatment,” added Miller. “[These were] some of the things people were dealing with back then. If people saw that you were depressed or bipolar, you’d be treated this way. A lot of people were shells [of themselves] after the treatment. ”
Sadness was palpable in Kaufman’s disposition, much akin to a consummate jazz performer. “I think when we look at the film, in terms of Kaufman’s life, and you look at the photographs; there is a sort of sadness in his face… And when you listen to Charlie Parker, there’s sadness in between the notes,” concluded Miller.
Poetry became Kaufman’s salvation to offset many personal problems. To Kaufman, his gift for verse was fundamental to survival within an unjust world. Perhaps for this reason, he was regarded as the “quintessential jazz poet.”
Katherine Lindberg, a professor at Brooklyn College, is one of many literary academics featured in the film that routinely exalt Kaufman as an exemplary American poet. “”I remember his poetry was lush. That it was beautiful. That it was about death. A lot, in a way, like Whitman… It’s not joy, but it’s a kind of despair that nonetheless carries one on,” she says.
In that Jazz corner of life
Wrapped in a mist of sound
His legacy, our Jazz-tinted dawn
Wailing his triumphs of oddly begotten dreams
Inviting the nerveless to feel once more
That fierce dying of humans consumed
In raging fires of Love.
“The burgeoning scholarship on the American prose-poem consistently left out black people altogether,” adds Alden Lynn Nielson, a professor of American Literature. “There was prose poetry by black writers going back since [W.E.B.] Dubois, actually to the early part of the 20th century… One of the centerpieces was ‘Ancient Rain,’ which to me, is one of the major art works in prose poem genre in the United States of America.” Kaufman published Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness in 1965, and Golden Sardine two years later.
The Ancient Rain, Kaufman’s third book of poetry, published in 1981, contains his poem of the same title, which is considered one of his most important works.
In America, the Ancient Rain is beginning to fall again. The Ancient Rain falls from a distance secret sky. It shall fall here on America, which alone remains alive, on this earth of death.
“It was like [Bob] Dylan’s ‘Hard Rain,’” adds Raymond Foye. “[‘Ancient Rain’] was a response to the patriotism of 1976 – the bicentennial year. It was [Kaufman] choosing a big subject, and really stretching it… Very much connected to the breath, and to how he would read them. The way Bob wrote in CAPITAL letters; that’s the way Bob spoke. Everything was terribly urgent when he came up to you and said something. That’s the way the poems were.”
Winans, in an article published in Empty Mirror, wrote that in 1978, Kaufman “abruptly renounced writing and again withdrew into solitude, not emerging again until l982, to read one of his poems on the PBS television show ‘Images.’ From l980 up until the time of his death, he would occasionally read his poems in public, but by then he had been reduced to a ghost of his former self…”
Bob Kaufman died January 12, 1986, in San Francisco.
“I don’t think an American poet has had a send-off like Bobby,” recalls Hirschman in the latter stages of the film. “It was the most moving celebration of a poet’s life. There were upwards of 80 to 100 people, and they had a picture of Bobby held on a placard with a broom handle… and we went and read his poems in different places. And then a lovely march the street in New Orleans fashion through the park where there was music and dancing…”
And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead remains a cinematic tour-de-force of the life and times of poet Bob Kaufman, a largely unheralded but considerable figure in American literary history. In 1996, Coffee House Press posthumously published Cranial Guitar: Selected Poems by Bob Kaufman. While the film is indeed designed for its particular audience, it remains just as uncompromising and true as its ingenious subject.
Charters, Ann. The Portable Beat Reader. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.
Kaufman, Bob. The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978. New York: New Directions, 1981.
Lee, Kerry. “Coffee and Bob Kaufman, Poet of the People,” Literary Traveler. https://www.literarytraveler.com/articles/coffee-and-bob-kaufman-poet-of-the-people/
Pattison, Michael. Keyframe, January 2016. Reprinted online in IdFilm, January 13, 2018.
Winans, A.D. “A.D. Winans Remembers Bob Kaufman,” Empty Mirror. https://www.emptymirrorbooks.com/beat/winans-remembers-bob-kaufman
“And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead: Bob Kaufman, Poet,” Vienna International Film Festival. https://www.viennale.at/en/films/and-when-i-die-i-wont-stay-dead-bob-kaufman-poet
Various interviews. And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead. The BK Project / Rosa Filmes, directed by Billy Woodberry, 2015.
Listen to Bob Kaufman’s poems
While the trailer for And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead is available online, the film itself currently is not. But, here are some Kaufman-related videos to enjoy.