Jack Micheline died twenty-one years ago, but last week I received a copy of his new book, On Valencia Street: Poems and Ephemera. In it, the poet and painter is very much still with us thanks to editor Tate Swindell, who has similarly brought to life poets Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, and Harold Norse in other posthumous collections and records.
After an event at City Lights to celebrate Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in 2018, Swindell was struck by the idea of collecting Micheline’s previously unpublished work as a means of growing his legacy. With the help of Micheline’s son and others, Swindell has put together On Valencia Street, an extremely attractive book filled with, as the title suggests, poems and ephemera.
The ephemera include a wide array of brightly coloured paintings and black-and-white photographs. There is also a variety of sketches, notebook pages, postcards, napkins, and posters from events at which the poet performed. These are all reproduced in extremely high definition in this beautiful, colourful volume. They breathe life into a book otherwise comprised of a dead man’s words.
My one complaint is that I wish that the ephemera were annotated, as they can be rather disorienting. There are postcards included and one can find out from whom it was sent by going back to the table of contents, but there is no backstory to explain it or whether it is related to the poems opposite, and none of the paintings, sketches, or notes are explained either. This makes them rather cryptic; I suppose much like the poems themselves.
The poems are even more wide-ranging in subject matter and style than the collected ephemera. Some are short, terse poems comprised of barely twenty words, while others are more like works of prose. Many of them concern the downtrodden in society – especially artists – and more than a few are preoccupied with boozing. There is often a bitterness to the poems, an anger at various elements in the world, seemingly those that conspire to hold down the poets. These lines give us some of his best work:
“this world I live in kills poets
this world I live in is insane”
“I prefer my poetry and poverty to the utter futility
of artistic prostitution.”
Some of the finest poems in the volume describe a particular scene, offering up an odd vantage point on the world, or else tell a story of a person’s life. In these, we have concrete details, the sort of “minute particulars” Ginsberg liked so much from William Blake. We see this in poems like “Charlie” and “A Whore, Walt Whitman, A Poet and God”:
“I met a whore in front of a forty-second street movie
She asked me who I was
I told her I was a poet
And I had eight cents”
As in the above lines, many of the poems are in fact about being a poet, which infuses the book with its bitterness. While holding up high his lofty occupation, Micheline often bemoans his plight. It’s not easy being a poet and living in poverty, but someone’s got to do it.
On Valencia Street is a beautiful volume of poetry and art, a genuine work of art in itself. The quality of the printing stands in stark contrast to the stapled, Xeroxed books Micheline produced during his own lifetime. The whole production seems an adventurous one, and one borne very much of love. Tate Swindell and others have done a fantastic job of collecting and presenting Micheline’s unknown work, bringing new light to an interesting and undervalued artist.
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