I can’t sleep, thinking of him. He was always so vulnerable. His final decade was, finally, happy. He got some long overdue recognition, though not enough. I guess part of me thinks that of all people, Steve Dalachinsky (above) should have been spared death, given another hundred years. Only now when he’s gone will all of us, and the world, realize how much we need him. We never know how good it is when its right before us, until it’s gone.
From what I know, following attendance at a Saturday Sun Ra Arkestra performance in Long Island, and then a reading that he gave, Dalachinsky said that things were going dark and suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Rushed to a hospital, his condition worsened. The doctors took him him off life support. His last words were “Maybe I overdosed with Sun Ra.” At 5:03 a.m. on September 16, he died.
I keep getting the feeling that I can just pick up the phone to call Dalachinsky, as I used to do late at night, and say: “All this stuff about you being dead is bullshit, right?” Followed by a sinking realization that our late night calls are over, will never happen again, and that I’ll never again sit with him in back of Soho’s Broome Street Bar, eating French fries, drinking coffee, shooting the breeze until after midnight and then, at Spring Street, we’d hug and shake hands goodbye. I never thought there’d be a last time because hanging out with him, talking about our lives as writers, felt like one of Life’s givens, not a privilege but a human necessity. And now, I know, it was a privilege, that all of Life is only that: never a given. And some day the privilege of being alive will be taken from me as well. So I guess I have to take nothing for granted, treat life as sacred, as best as I can, with all my faults, frailties and limited means.
On social media, the outpouring of love for Steve is a moving vindication of the way he chose to live, as a free jazz poet, champion of experimental music, collaborator with cutting edge composers, gifted collage artist, underground avant-garde gig hustler and columnist for the Brooklyn Rail.
He had a charming streetwise Brooklynese manner and his constant and often justified complaints against his critical neglect by the behemoths of the cultural establishment were a kind of free-form jazz in itself, a music that never offended, endeared him to you, often made you laugh.
On the other hand, I just read an e-obit about him in Art Forum that mentions his inclusion in my anthology, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry (they failed to mention that I also included him in The Outlaw Bible of American Art—something that Steve would have bitched about, how on the rare occasion that the critics do notice, still, they get it all wrong). Which seems a good place to underscore the fact that whereas the bulk of social media tributes and sparse obits emphasize his involvement with music or meddling with art, that’s not how I think of him.
He was one of the most important American poets to appear in the last twenty years. Yes, better than Jorie Graham. Better than Anne Carson. Better than all of those creampuffs peddled by Alfred Knopf or W.W. Norton, in books with bucolic covers and back cover raves by the self-involved Mandarins of the poetry elite, who never once gave him the time of day.
In 1999, I landed a contract with Thunder’s Mouth Press, a prestigious publisher of counterculture notables like Hubert Selby Jr., Joy Haro, Dee Dee Ramone, etc. etc. My editor was Neil Ortenberg, the head of the house, a bad boy millionaire who reportedly owned an island somewhere and rode a classic fantail motorcycle.
The contracted book was The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. With a little luck, I figured it might sell five hundred copies. Now in its 17th printing, its sales over twenty years are pushing somewhere around one hundred thousand. Sold across the globe, it’s taught in high schools and colleges throughout America. It became the first in a series of Outlaw Anthos I did on Literature, Essays, Art—a new kind of canon. But in 1999, no one had any idea of what a progenitive beast it would prove to be.
Word about the antho spread through the ranks of underground American poets. Unsolicited submissions poured in. I’m not sure how Dalachinsky’s name came up. It might be Ron Kolm, chief honcho for a New York City-based group known as “the Unbearables,” who mentioned my book to Steve, or brought up Steve to me. I just don’t recall. I may even have met Dalachinsky before 1999, at one of the poetry venues we all used to read at in lower Manhattan in the early days of the Spoken Word poetry revolution: ABC No Rio, the Nuyorican Poets Café, the Knitting Factory, Under Acme. It’s sure that Ron intended to include Steve in the section of the book devoted to the Unbearables, in which each is represented by one short poem.
Instead, Steve sent me a handful of very long poems. I declined. He wrote back, indignant, protesting, his email composed all in lower case, weirdly spaced, oddly punctuated. Relenting, I told him to send a second batch. Days later, it arrived.
The second batch of poems were also too long but extraordinarily beautiful, the very opposite of the first batch. Many of the Unbearables tend to write a certain kind of spoken word poem, eccentric, very street-wise, an amateurish impersonation of the “ Literary.” This has its own kind of raffish charm. Some, like the short stuff by Sparrow or Hal Sirowitz make you laugh till your gut busts.
But Dalachinsky’s second batch was something altogether different. Though often plainspoken, his poems were of a higher, more considered order, sprung, say, from WC Williams or Galway Kinnell but as though filtered through the ex-con Beat Shellyian mind of Gregory Corso, and more personable, less inflated. The absence of literary affectation was exquisite, a direct transmission. It were as though he were seated in back of the Broome Street Bar, late at night, free-flow injecting his soul into yours over French fries and coffee. It was a conversation that not only lifted you but touched and alleviated your loneliness. His poems invited you in ways that today’s MFA-branded poems – either pretentiously over-crafted to impress by technical virtuosity or else having nothing intimately true to say– so often fail to do.
“you played with my bones
Now my bones lay soft and frustrated
On your platter
picked of warmth
and stunned by complete repulsion
now the sanity of my situation
screams like headaches
thru the yellowing
of what once looked like a torso
and the skull
so hard to penetrate
is the only door
between plucking and righteousness.
you shocked my system
with more volts than my system could take
and as you helped me crawl from the slab
to the car
I thought only of the soft side of life
And as you sat me in my neutral state
In the chair on front of the house
i felt only life’s exodus
watching bodies pass
on a warm fall day.”
From “The Bones #2”
The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, pg, 385
I don’t know why his poems opened me, made me feel. I’m no literary critic. Either it works or it doesn’t. So little ever does. So when the real thing finds you, let it. Some of his poems brought tears to my eyes.
“she works in a saxophone factory
she’s young & pretty
all day long she sits in front of
a hole punch
punching holes in ivory
she gets the blues
tho she’s never played
her blues are still on the
anything can be too late if it’s not on time
seeing one fall
over & over again
why did god make me this way
how to explain this
how much this figures in….
where have the leaves gone…
I’ll tell you
Look in your pockets
her baby was born in the factory
all hollowed out
like a reed
what’s to show for it?
The man squats
facing a wall
he fingers the air
punching out a bluesy tune
miracle is the extension of wish
she’s young &
her life still measured
Rewrite & combining of 2 poems “saxaphone factory” from 12/13/85
& “all hollowed out” from 10/31/96
Why did this poem make me water up? As Dalachinsky might say: “how the hell do i know?” It was like the time my friend, Thane Rosenbaum, the novelist, brought me to MoMA on one of my trips to NYC, to see the Abstract Expressionists, whose works I revere. There they were, Pollock, Barnett Newman, De Kooning. I wandered off to see another favorite painter, Francis Bacon, soaked it up. Then I turned my head and there hung this Picasso. Not one of his best, no. But the force with which it struck me was like that of trudging through the reams of bad poetry that came in for The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry and then reading Dalachinsky. My response to both Picasso’s painting and Dalachinsky’s second batch of poems was not of a high aesthetic intellectual order: “Goddamn! Wow!” It’s like there’s painting, and then there’s Picasso. Like there’s poetry, and then there’s Dalachinsky.
I decided not to place Dalachinsky with the “Unbearables” section but in a special place in the book called American Renegades for those too independent, too unique, to suit any particular school or category. When it came to review my selections for The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry with Neil Ortenberg, the publisher, Dalachinsky’s name came up. His response:
“Why not? You know him?”
“I know him well. I pass him on the street every day. He’s not a poet. He’s just some sidewalk vendor who hustles cassettes and used books. He doesn’t belong in the book.”
“But I think he’s one of the best poets I’ve ever read.”
“No Dalachinsky, no book.”
Suddenly, I heard a loud crash. His assistant came on the line. “Alan. Neil just threw his computer across the room. Can we please call you back in ten minutes?”
Ten minutes later, Neil called back. “Okay. Dalachinsky’s in.”
The book, now carried by Basic Books/Hachette—one of the most prestigious imprints in publishing– went on to become a bestseller. From my hand, three more Outlaw anthos appeared, plus novels, memoirs, books of poetry, newspaper essays. Dalachinsky went from street vendor and building superintendent hauling trash cans in the brutal winter, to an underground hero of the avant-garde, known from New York to Paris. In 2015, I arranged for him to appear in the Sprachsaltz International Literary Festival in Halle, Austria. Thanks to the intercession of the eminent Austrian novelist, Norbert Gstrein, two of my books, the memoir Jew Boy and a poetry collection, Straightjacket Elegy, had been translated into German by Jurgen Schneider and published by Elias Schneitter’s excellent Austrian publishing house, Edition Baes. As one of the Sprachsaltz festival organizers, along with the novelist Heinz Heisel and Magdalena Kauz, Schneitter had asked me one day to name, in my opinion, the best poet in New York City. Without hesitation I said: “Steve Dalachinsky.” So Steve, along with Ron Kolm and the photographer Clayton Patterson were flown to the festival. Accompanying Steve was his wife, the beautiful Yuko Otomo, an extraordinary poet and art critic. An inseparable couple, they dwelled on Spring Street in the tiniest flat I’ve ever seen. When writing or making art, they shared a tiny table where they worked facing each other.
At the festival, Steve was a big hit with the younger set. None of us older writers could understand why. One day, as we sat on a sofa that faced a panoramic window, we jealously observed Steve in the garden on the other side of the glass holding forth to two young lady reporters, who sat listening, spellbound. “What the hell is he saying to them?” we wondered. I volunteered to sneak behind Steve to eavesdrop. He was telling them in grisly detail about problems with his gall bladder. The young ladies absorbed all this with rapt expressions.
Of course, all of us attended his reading and it was magnificent. No one could read a Dalachinsky poem like Dalachinsky. A rhythm sprang up in the hall, engulfing us all in a sage Brooklynese voice of tenderness, prophesy and pain. I’ve performed with Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Thom Gunn, Sapphire, Jack Micheline, Sam Sax, Anne Waldman, and I don’t know who else. At his best, there was none better than Dalachinsky.
Between 2015-18, I moved back to New York City, where I enjoyed a residency at the 42nd Street Library and completed The Outlaw Bible of American Art, in which I included collages of Dalachinsky, and made significant headway on a novel, The Berlin Woman, which is coming out next month from Mandel Vilar Press. During the New York sojourn, I visited as often as I could with Steve in our rendezvous spot in the Broome Street Bar off West Broadway in SoHo. Neither of us drank. We ate hand-cut French fries and drank fresh brewed coffee. As night fell, cool breezes rose through the window and our conversation ran on into the late hours. He was enamored of collage, at which he proved a virtuoso; he called it “time spent with the scissors and the glue.” He complained that he was no longer a real poet, loved music now more than ever. When I expressed skepticism about the end of his poetry career, he insisted that he was ill, very ill, had cancer but refused to undergo the required surgery and had no taste for poetry. As he didn’t look well, I felt that I had no choice but to believe him.
Then, he invited me to watch him read in a Cecil Taylor tribute at the Whitney Museum. Clark Coolidge was the headliner, followed by another poet whose name I don’t recall and lastly, Dalachinsky. Coolidge was very good. So was the other fellow. But silhouetted as he read against a wall of glass on the other side of which was a dioramic Naked City-style Manhattan vista, Dalachinsky was simply electrifying. Members of the audience gasped as he read. Several times, I turned to Jim Feast, a poet and critic, and whispered excitedly: “That’s a REAL poet! I mean, that’s the real damn thing!”
The last time Steve and I read together was at a now defunct East Village art gallery called Studio 26. Appearing with us were the San Francisco poet, Neeli Cherkovski, and Steve’s wife, Yuko.
I was enthralled with Dalachinsky. His poems had grown looser, even more conversational, soliloquies from the Unconcious, and bore, to my mind, a stark resemblance to the latter day one act monologues of Samuel Beckett. But, also, he was physically weaker than I’d ever seen him, shockingly so. Before I returned to the Bay Area in late 2018, I spent one of my last evenings in Manhattan with Steve at our usual spot, the Broome Street Bar and after, on the late night walk home along West Broadway, we paused, as we always did, at the corner of Spring Street to say goodbye.
He told me that he was very, very ill, more than anyone realized, was just barely hanging on but must keep going until he couldn’t anymore. I told him to take care of himself, not to push the envelope, maybe cut back on attending two, sometimes three performances of music or poetry per night. He wouldn’t hear of stopping. He had trouble sleeping, he said. The fatigue of attending those performances helped. I had the impression, though, that despite this brutally exhausting round of activity, his chronic insomnia persisted. There on the corner, he told me, as he always did, that though I was twice his size and a terrible person, he loved me dearly and I told him that even though he was a scoundrel and shameless hustler, I loved him too. We always parted with the words “I love you” between us. I also told him that he was, in my mind, and always would be, one of the very best poets in America. And then we hugged, shook hands and said goodbye.
Alan Kaufman’s most recent novel, The Berlin Woman (Mandel Vilar Press), will appear next month, in October.
PHOTO & VIDEO CREDITS
* Lead-In Image of Steve Dalachinsky by Erik LaPrade; Taken From a Portrait of Steve Dalachinsky and Harry Nudel (see below);
* Studio 26 Poster Courtesy of Alan Kaufman and PosterMyWall.com
* Video of Steve Dalachinsky – Robert O’Haire / YouTube.com