Is B.L. Kennedy dying?
If you’re a lazy poet, you’d better hope not
B.L. Kennedy is dying.
That’s what he says, at least. It’s true that the poet doesn’t look so good lately. The skin around his eyes is grayish, sagging like outdoor furniture after several years of enduring heavy storms. As of late, his conversations tend to droop toward the morbid—the afterlife’s deep resonance rings low in his speech’s reflective tone.
Inside Kennedy’s modest Midtown apartment—filled with poetry books, novels, walls crowded with art and memorabilia—the 55-year-old poet recalls a minor stroke he experienced a couple of weeks back. He points to a bookshelf in the corner of the dimly lit apartment and recounts the incident: “I walked over there, and all of the sudden the book dropped from my hands. My knees went out, and I went down for the count. It didn’t feel like a heart attack; you know when you have a heart attack. I tried to pick up the book and I couldn’t grasp it. It kept falling out of my hand. Finally, I held onto the bookshelf and I stayed there, kept breathing and slowly got up, picked the book up, put it back in its place and just braced myself until I felt right.
“I sat down and I just [said], ‘What the fuck just went on?’”
It was an intensely frightening experience for Kennedy. Even scarier than when he survived quadruple-bypass surgery in his 30s because of an undiagnosed heart condition. After the stroke, a lengthy visit to the cardiologist revealed that it was Kennedy’s blocked arteries that led to the recent collapse.
“I may have heard it wrong, because my friend Charlene heard it a little bit different, but on [the left] side of my neck the carotid artery is 100 percent blocked. [The right] side is between 55 and 80 percent blocked,” he explains.
Even Kennedy—a man of action known for turning naysayers and disbelievers into humbled believers—seems worried.
Whether you like it or not, Kennedy is a man of action. And a Sacramento poetry institution, if you will. The Bronx-born, seventh-grade dropout with two Master of Fine Arts degrees (one from Sacramento State and one from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Colorado) came to Sacramento in 1976 from New York. Since then, he’s released somewhere near 35 books, including Jim Morrison Visits Disneyland, Sex Toy and Conversations—a series of interviews with established and up-and-coming poets. He was the brain behind Landing Signals, a 1985 anthology of Sacramento poets, and he organized the Java City Poetry Marathons, which began in 1982 and continued successfully for 20 years. In 2006, Kennedy, along with his then partner Linda Thorell, released I Began to Speak, a documentary film on Sacramento poetry spanning nearly five decades, which premiered at the Crest Theatre.
But all that Sacramento literary history, which Kennedy is so deeply proud of, for the time being is at the back of his mind. And, like a broken clock set on retelling a painful second over and over again, conversation ticks back to the topic of mortality, or, in this case, a lack thereof.
“I’m just trying to find out what’s going on with my health. I mean, I might have a total stroke before Friday,” he says. To make it worse, Kennedy’s doctor says he’s “a walking time bomb.”
But everyone kind of already knew that.
That same louder-than-life voice that’s so effective at promoting Sacramento poetry also has made Kennedy a few enemies over the years. For the last 30, he’s criticized: other poets, the Sacramento Poetry Center, the poet-laureate program, the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission and even SN&R. Kennedy’s never been afraid to jaw to those who will listen. And because of this, he’s viewed by many as abrasive, unruly, outspoken, mouthy and rude.
At his monthly poetry readings at Luna’s Café & Juice Bar, he often spars with out-of-line audience members (which can include anything from interrupting him while he’s onstage to simply reading a poem that bores him). His antics are at once entertaining and frustrating.
On one occasion, an open-mic poet broke Kennedy’s ribs. According to Kennedy, a guy at Luna’s was dishing dirt within earshot, so he approached the guy. “I went up to him and gave him a tap on his face—a Buddha slap—and he got up and gave me this roundhouse kick in the ribs,” he says.
For those counting, even that trip to the hospital didn’t shut Kennedy up.
As the hours wear on, Kennedy sits on the couch talking passionately about his love of Sacramento poetry, still feeling high from when he brought former San Francisco laureate Jack Hirschman to Luna’s for a special reading. “It was fuckin’ amazing,” he says, nodding in meditative approval.
But just like a ship with a drunk captain, the conversation steers right back toward death.
“If anything goes wrong, I’m going to give [the authority] to pull the plug right away, and I could leave my body to UCD or something. But more fun would be to have my naked body stuffed—with a full erection—and have various artists in town paint it. Like Steve Vanoni could paint the dick. And then have in black letters on my chest: ‘The last artistic statement of B.L. Kennedy,’ and have it donated to the Crocker,” he says, only half-joking.
It’s Thursday night. The Luna’s open-mic poetry series is in full swing and the walls are alive with cramped bodies. Orange light gives the venue a settling, dreamlike feel as a blender whirrs in the background. A female in the audience slowly sips a fruit shake. A man with a long, gray goatee drinks from a nearly empty glass of beer.
Kennedy is onstage scowling at the audience.
“That’s all you fucking got?” His words, yelled in a quick Bronx accent, cut through the room, a rusted dagger. “Fuck you!” he growls. A group of women at a table next to the stage uniformly shake their heads in disgust.
Kennedy is demeaning. He’s offensive. But those who know him are used to it. Some even enjoy it and yell back at him.
From the sound of his voice—surly and sure of something (nobody knows what)—you can hardly tell he’s ill. From the strength of his words, you’d have no idea that Kennedy might be on the grim reaper’s to-do list.
But, technically speaking, aren’t we all?
The B.L. Kennedy Death Dance and Antisocial Review
“Is that the sun up there?
I don’t know I’m just a stranger in town.”
—The Three Stooges
And when I die
All the mockingbirds
(My method of departure will be talked about)
People will put on their best
Dancing shoes and party up
Beneath the moon
Knowing there is no part of them
That is not of the Gods
When I die, my mouth
Is filled with statements
My face is crossed with light