B.L. Kennedy—self-made Sacramento legend and self-described urban shaman—launches his most ambitious and most contentious project documenting the city’s poetic history.
When B.L. Kennedy gave his guided tour of literary Sacramento this past September, things got off to an unruly start. Which is to say, just as expected. Handouts were lost, transportation was late and inadequate, and Kennedy became vociferously agitated. His many years as a performance poet and poetry host had accustomed him to commanding public attention, and so he did, with snarling threats to the indifferent CSUS administration, under whose auspices the tour was conducted, and with wild-swinging wisecracks. “I’ll alienate the whole goddamn world!” he said, in his broad Bronx accent, and let loose with a gasping laugh.
It was a balmy Saturday. Kennedy wore jeans, an open work shirt and a plain T, with a pen tucked into its collar, as usual. When not speaking, which was not often, he scrunched his doughy features and fixed his mouth in a jutting pout, as if poised for important pronouncements. His white wreath of hair, normally snug on his bald pate like a medieval friar’s cut, was overgrown enough to get pushed around by the Delta breeze. It gave him an air of mild derangement, in which he seemed entirely comfortable.
Kennedy and fellow guide, novelist Bill Pieper, had requested a single van, but they got two smaller ones and reluctantly divided the handful of tour-takers between them. Patiently but futilely, Kennedy’s driver instructed him on communicating with the other van via walkie-talkie, while enduring his sudden, contradictory and random-seeming commands.
The first stop was the CSUS English Department, which Kennedy called, “My old stomping ground, where I caused terror and ruined many lives.” His remark seemed both hyperbolic and entirely plausible. And it set a precedent. As the vans zigzagged through Midtown’s grid and paused at landmarks, Sacramento’s literary history fell victim to Kennedy’s digressions: His accounts of local literary adventure kept boomeranging back to himself. There was that adult store on Broadway, where he said he’d worked during college to gain life experience and improve his writing. There was the Book Collector, where readers could find the Rattlesnake Review, to which he often contributes. There was the Java City at 18th Street and Capitol Avenue, where he’d launched his famous poetry marathon, in spite of the fact that “they thought I was a lunatic.” He laughed the gasping laugh again, and passengers shifted tensely in their seats. Two women in the back halted their undercurrent of chitchat to exchange furtive glances and a single, unspoken question: “Who put this guy in charge?”
B.L. Kennedy did.
For better and worse, Kennedy is a self-made Sacramento institution, a self-described urban shaman, the author of such collections as Jim Morrison Visits Disneyland, Sex Toy and Screaming Pygmies, and the zealous superintendent of this city’s grandest poet-aggregating events. He is the originator of Landing Signals, a first-of-its-kind 1985 anthology of local poets; of October in the Railroad Earth, a tribute to Jack Kerouac in the form of an annual reading series that spanned a quarter century; and of the three up-all-weekend Java City poetry marathons, which have showcased hundreds of local poets at a time every 10 years since 1986.
Kennedy’s most recent project, shared with his partner and fellow poet Linda Thorell, may be his most ambitious and most contentious. It’s a documentary survey of Sacramento poetry from 1960 to 2006, called I Began to Speak, and it premieres at the Crest Theatre on Wednesday night. “I won’t be so egotistical as to say the movie,” he said. “It’s a movie—about the creative evolution of one community.” Sight unseen, it’s already caused a flap, dividing the community it intends to celebrate.
With financial help from a Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission ArtScapes grant and technical help from Access Sacramento, Kennedy and Thorell’s project weaves a video tapestry of local poets’ voices from scores of performance footage and new interviews. Kennedy cites the influence of Ron Mann’s 1982 documentary Poetry in Motion, which gathered poets from throughout the nation, but for Sacramento in particular, I Began to Speak is unprecedented.
Most people who would know agree that nobody cares as much about the history of Sacramento poetry as Kennedy does. Most agree he has put Sacramento poetry on the map. But for some, Kennedy’s tireless poetic promotion has proven increasingly tiresome. Some refused to participate in his film simply because it was his. Some got angry for being neglected and threatened to boycott its premiere. Some won’t even read this article, because they just can’t take any more B.L. Kennedy publicity.
Clearly, Kennedy has built bridges within the community of local poets—and burned some, too. Even at poetry events where he’s not present, the mere mention of the man has prompted otherwise congenial literary types to curse his name. All of which begs the question of what kind of local-poetry documentary Kennedy can possibly make. Can he really be the right man for the job?
Plenty of people may not think so, but Pieper does. Calling the movie the best thing to happen in Sacramento’s literary history for a long while, Pieper said: “I think the time is exactly right, and it’s a pretty audacious project. I’m not sure anybody else in town is audacious enough and has the energy to take it on.”
Audacity, of course, is not aptitude. “One of my fears is that maybe objectivity is not possible,” said Sacramento Poetry Center founder Theresa Vinciguerra, who ignored the open call for video submissions to I Began to Speak. “I think the problem is that he picks and chooses a little too much.”
Vinciguerra recalled a bitter dispute between Kennedy and the poetry center over ownership of the Landing Signals copyright and explained that as a general rule she tries to keep her distance from him.
“In the early days, he was a character. He basically broke off from the poetry center because he thought we were too straight-laced,” she said. “He felt like a lot of people do, that you have to be drunk to be a great poet. It was more than him admiring the beat poets—it was almost like he wanted to be them, like he was living in some kind of fantasy world. It certainly made his performances very engaging. But it was hard to separate the performing person from the actual person.”
Others have other issues with the foundation for I Began to Speak. “What people are seeing it as is B.L. Kennedy and friends,” said Khiry Malik, who founded and for years hosted the Mahogany Urban Poetry Series at Broadway’s now shuttered Sweet Fingers Jamaican Restaurant. “B.L. said he put out a call for artists, but we didn’t get a call. I’m not saying he didn’t. But we were there five years.”
Malik figures his scene’s youthful population, heavy on slam poets, kept it from registering in Kennedy’s narrow view of significant history. “The names of the poets on his list, I’m largely unfamiliar with a lot of them. Well, how do you make history? You’ve got to do something significant. So—what? They only have people in there who sent in the tape? I could be included in the history of poetry in Sacramento as long as I send in a tape?”
In October, when he first learned of Kennedy’s project, Malik sent a message to his e-mail list with “Boycott this movie” in the subject line. Then he sent a politely challenging message to Kennedy, who thanked him for his comments and replied in defense of the movie’s scope: “I can only do so much at any one time. There is a very large poetry scene in Sacramento. There is a scene that is so large that many films can be made. … Please come and see the film before judging it. We did our best. Show me one poet in Sacramento who is willing to freely give as much of their time to a single project. My partner and I have put close to $3,000 of our own money to make this film. We see it as a gift to poetry and to Sacramento.”
“This guy’s clueless,” the woman in the back of the van told her friend. “He’s just talking away.” The literary tour had advanced, or maybe regressed. Important poetry places had whizzed by unaccounted for. While other passengers twitched like frightened hostages or buried their faces in tour maps, the guide continued vamping. He, too, looked antsy, as if hoping for the abandonment of passenger expectations. That would make it easier for them to embrace Kennedy’s sincere and wildly wandering stream-of-consciousness sort of literary education. This is a man who can’t walk a block down the street, let alone navigate a van, without stopping to pantomime some story he’s telling, breaking up the pace again and again until finally you figure out that, for better or worse, his jagged syncopation is the pace. The two women in the back just gave up humoring him and began their own conversation. When the van approached the former home of Joan Didion a few minutes later, one woman offered a sweeping dismissal of Didion’s entire career to her friend, who admitted never having read Sacramento’s most famous author. Who takes a literary tour of the city with such disregard for its most distinguished literary daughter? Hard to say—hard, also, to tell whether the exchange made Kennedy’s efforts seem more or less pitiable. But it did cast him in a new light, and his standing with the rest of the group changed. His guts and his guilelessness now seemed to count for something. His very personality embodied the city’s own strange and famously embattled artistic self-esteem, at once mopey and cantankerous.
“It’s sad that Sacramento is so ashamed of its own history,” he later said. “It denies its own history. I’m tired of it. People here literally do not believe. You’re Sacramento, so get used to being and believing in who you are.”
Bari Lewis Kennedy’s parents never agreed on exactly where or when he was born, but it was definitely in the Bronx, most likely in 1953, and probably during the last week of October. He celebrates on Halloween. Kennedy has no birth certificate, which lately has frustrated him because he wants to visit Europe and can’t get a passport. “I can prove that I exist! But that’s not going to get me out of here,” he said. This isn’t to say that he’s done with Sacramento, into which he stumbled on a beatnikish cross-country odyssey in 1976. “As an outsider, I have more pride in my city than some people who’ve lived here all their lives,” Kennedy said. Sacramento has become his place in the world. It’s what he says he’s about, an assertion of his identity.
Kennedy grew up half-Irish Catholic, half-Jewish and fully working class. “Nobody in my family read anything. There were no books in my house,” he said. “My mother felt frightened by literacy. She wouldn’t even let me join the library. My Aunt Mae once told me, ‘Had you been raised by anybody but your mother, you’d have been a genius.’ I said, ‘I am a genius.’ She said, ‘Go play ball.’ ”
Comics taught him to read, he said, and Spider-Man remains his favorite comic. “Spider-Man was the first superhero who saw a psychiatrist,” Kennedy said. It’s a proudly self-deprecating quip—and an affirmation: the heroic and the neurotic may productively coexist.
After seventh grade, Kennedy dropped out of school. “But,” he explained, “the Irish and the Jew, something in my DNA made me gravitate toward literature. It hasn’t worked on my sister or my cousins or anything.”
At the core of Kennedy’s longstanding estrangement from his family is their lack of support for his academic accomplishments and creative curiosity. He has two master’s degrees from CSUS and a master of fine arts degree from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Colorado, where he had Allen Ginsberg for a teacher—not to mention even doses of adulation and enmity from an entire city’s creative community. But still, he said, his sister tells her children that he’s a failure.
It’s a sore subject. Kennedy now calls Sacramento his family, which hints at the reasons for his many feuds and fallings out here and the tendency, when he throws himself into something, to lead with the chip on his shoulder.
That chip is evident in his belief that CSUS wanted his innovative master’s thesis to fail. A 60-plus-page performance poem called Psychic Sores in Clear Glass, the thesis was inspired by the New York subway ride on which he learned of Jim Morrison’s death, and during which, accordingly, “everything I was and wanted to be had collided.” The poem succeeded and broke new ground. “You couldn’t get a degree in performance poetry [then],” Kennedy explained. “Now anybody can do it. All they have to do is cite my thesis.”
Kennedy likes the idea that a door was opened for the next generation as much as he likes the idea that he was the one who opened it. He is serious and generous with his mentorship of younger artists who catch his eye, as he is with the reverie of his own idols.
That’s partly why Kennedy’s friend Becky Brook, a graphic designer, calls him a magician. She was a struggling artist who didn’t believe in herself when she met him. But Kennedy found out about her paintings and he took her under his wing. “He put me on the examination table,” she wrote in a recent e-mail. “His questions, insights and motivation were so clear and exact, I finally got the picture about where I was standing and why I wasn’t moving. He [also] showed me the life of art in Sacramento. I had no idea what Sacramento had to offer.”
Responsibility for that kind of stewardship is more than Kennedy ever thought he could handle.
“Early on, people would call me a poet and I’d run away,” he said. “I’d say, ‘I can’t be that responsible. That’s big. That’s being a maker.’ ”
By his late 30s, however, Kennedy felt he couldn’t escape the title. He now accepts that he’s a maker—a maker of his own poetry, of poetry events and, of course, of enemies.
“It hurts,” he said of his tainted reputation. “A lot of it I deserve. And part of it I don’t. People will never, ever, ever forgive me for the way I was 20 years ago—a rip-roaring, Lenny Brucean drunk. I was sloppy. Once I started, I didn’t know when to stop.”
Kennedy still drinks but not enough to risk getting kicked out of poetry readings. His heart has proven fragile, and the living he makes from disability benefits is meager. He also admits to never having successfully managed a regular writing schedule. But it’s too easy to call him undisciplined. “One of my favorite authors is Kawabata,” he said. “Up until the day he died he was still revising the book he won the Nobel Prize for. In his Nobel speech, he goes, ‘For a writer, a prize is a burden.’ ”
For those who would dismiss Kennedy as a flake, Pieper said, “He takes his work seriously. He’s not screwing around. If you are serious about your work, you’re down with him. He doesn’t want posers and fuckers-around or any of that. He has no patience for that. Life is too short.”
Kennedy may have settled into his life, but he doesn’t seem to have settled for it. “Aw, they’re never gonna make me poet laureate. I accept that,” he allowed, ruefully. “It’s a corporate thing; they have to know they can be sure what’s going to come out of their mouths.” With him, that wouldn’t work, so he’s invented his own version of that publicly administrative position, disregarding others’ opinions that he wasn’t right for it.
John Skarstad, formerly the head of UC Davis’ Shields Library Special Collections Department, which houses some of Kennedy’s poetry and local-poetry-related materials he’s collected, acknowledges Kennedy’s central place in Sacramento’s poetry scene: “He’s the barker for the show, really—getting people to see what was happening. When he went to Naropa, it was like they turned out the lights for a while.”
Even sometime nemesis and poet Luke Breit accepts the role Kennedy has assumed for himself: “I’ve not always been his strongest admirer, but I’ve been very impressed with his energy for this film project. I think he has turned over that leaf of ego immersion into everything he does, and approached this project with seriousness and humility. It’s the culmination of his work as an archivist of the Sacramento poetic experience. He’s the only guy that would do it. If he’s the wrong person, then there is no right person.”
At Thorell’s modest South Natomas home a few weeks ago, a half-finished jigsaw puzzle of Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” lay abandoned on the dining-room table. Tucked among bulging bookshelves, the occasional unicorn figurine or photograph of Leonard Cohen, and wall-mounted paintings by herself and Kennedy, Thorell sat rendering the movie. Her computer cabinet bloomed with Post-it notes, each signifying a unique sequence, labeled with a local poet’s name and arranged by color to indicate whether the sequence was an interview or a performance. Kennedy hovered behind her, scrutinizing while she plied the footage with minute adjustments. Thorell, who works full time as a project manager for Shari’s Berries, is as much the maker of I Began to Speak as Kennedy, if not more so. She shot most of the newer footage and put it all together.
“Four hours a day for that last year and a half,” Thorell said.
“Sometimes five hours,” Kennedy said.
“And 10 hours on weekends.”
“Sometimes 13. Linda and I still go to more poetry readings in this town than all of the poet laureates,” Kennedy proclaimed. In his accent, it sounded like “Linder and I.” He hushed himself to let her work.
Thorell is a small, feline-featured woman who often registers her warmth and quiet confidence through self-effacement. “You know, I probably could have made the movie faster if I actually knew what I was doing,” she said. In various ways, she is a B.L. Kennedy counterpoint.
She wheeled around in her chair and declared, “It’s not just him on film. This is not a B.L. movie.” Then she went back to work, running a clip backward and forward, tweaking the credits so that names would appear atop the appropriate people. Kennedy watched.
Asked if they’ve gotten sick of staring at their footage, both of them burst into laughter.
“My eyes are hurting! I have lines memorized,” Kennedy said. “At Luna’s the other week, I said, ‘And to quote Mary Mackey …’ and then Mary said, ‘Did I say that?’ The worst thing, though, is that poets are so goddamned fuckin’ serious.”
“They are!” Thorell said. “Like they have to now be intellectual instead of who they are.”
“It’s like the minute they see a camera, they stiffen,” he went on. “Oh, that voice, the poet’s drone!”
“I can say this to Bari,” Thorell said. “He gave me back my voice. My real voice.”
Kennedy made I Began to Speak so Scramento’s poets can celebrate themselves. “It goes back to Walt Whitman, ‘I celebrate myself,’ ” he said.
He’s right about that. However much that raw, yearning, self-proclaiming impulse has been diluted through overestimation and mediocre imitation, the forge of language and landscape stays hot. Today, that Whitman line is the title of a biography of Ginsberg, whose tutelage Kennedy clearly holds dear. Reputation, for Kennedy, is a way of belonging, of being heard, and finding a voice has to do with finding other voices. Poets have to put themselves in charge of that, because no one else will.
“I’ll be glad when it’s over,” Kennedy said. “I’m gonna take a year off and just write and paint. I know there’s some other thing that needs to be done. It gnaws at me. I can’t quite name it. But it’s there. This film is a part of it.”
Sometimes, his comments carry a tinge of fatalism. “I’ve already had quadruple-bypass heart surgery. I’ve already died on the operating table. I know that my heart gets blood from only one valve. I’ve never been afraid of death.”
This summer, Kennedy declared that the 2006 poetry marathon would be his last, though he’d be glad for someone else to take it over. One wonders whether this movie—in its way a summation of all the great projects that came before it—will be the final epic B.L. Kennedy event.
That is, unless you count the whole of his public life, the living poem of B.L. Kennedy, which is about beginning to speak and not shutting up. It’s about honoring peers and ancestors, and quarrelling with them—and about how Kennedy’s barbaric Bronxish yawp resonates in the space of Sacramento. To call him Whitman’s heir isn’t to overrate him; every American poet is Whitman’s heir, and he just wants to remind them.
Kennedy’s hoping the movie will inspire local poets, that it won’t further divide Sacramento’s literary community. And for that to happen other writers bear some responsibility, too. Malik, at least, allowed that hurt feelings over his presumed exclusion were soothed by his e-mail exchange with Kennedy: “It’s still sore because it was an omission,” Malik said, “but it wasn’t a deliberate omission. His responses to what I wrote were really, really great. He was really inviting. I really appreciate that.”
By the time it wound up, the literary Sacramento tour had been all over the map. What at first felt like a hostage situation was revealed to perceptive eyes to be a thrill ride. Heads had swirled. Appetites had risen. Tour takers may have missed many details of the city’s literary history, but they didn’t lack for a palpable sense of it and of its principal agitator. Having been at the mercy of Kennedy’s whims was its own enlightenment—if you had a problem with this guy by now, it was entirely yours, you philistine.
Late in the afternoon, in the glow of the setting sun, the vans arrived at Luna’s Café—a longtime local-poetry hub—and it was like coming home. Owner Art Luna opened early to let the group have the place to itself for a while. And the day ended with a Kennedy-hosted reading of local literature.
The Didion-defaming mutineer and friend fled, leaving a cozy, committed group that fanned out among the tables, ordered food and drinks, and got comfortable. The air conditioner hummed.
Here, Kennedy was truly in his element—full of warmth and enthusiasm for the readers he introduced, including Pieper and several poets who’d been hanging around when the tour arrived. Finally, the barking conservator had worked his community connections and performance experience into an intimate, entertaining event. Before the readings began, Kennedy’s laugh shot often through the room. He spoke loudly above the din, repeating something he’s often said, and which has never seemed untrue: “I’ve been blessed being here, because I know all the geniuses.”
PAINTING WITH WORDS
Falls in the Sacramento River
I watch her lips
A trick of nature
Maybe painting those lips
Will make a poem
I will sell books
For food money
THE IMMACULATE SEASON
(for Kathy Kieth)
Morning breaks softly
Across rain-swept path
Of yet another ordinary day
The clean purr of a car
Passes down some numbered street
My littered heart rings
With calculated curiosity
Or initiative of soul
The immaculate season is ending
I shut my eyes to judgment
What we want
There is no denial
No discarded verse
To charm or seduce
I light a cigarette & think
Is this how we shall be
In the end
Poems and paintings courtesy of Rattlesnake Press.