Mastodon POETRY DAZE - Minimalist Poems, Millionaire Dreams, and Andrew Wylie Before He Became “The Jackal” - Jeff Goldberg - Stories - Sensitive Skin Magazine

POETRY DAZE – Minimalist Poems, Millionaire Dreams, and Andrew Wylie Before He Became “The Jackal”

Andrew Wylie is as rich and powerful as he always wanted to be, a super-agent known in the publishing world as “The Jackal” for stealing writers from their longtime, loyal agents and publishers. Victor Bockris—who spun a whimsical movie-star fascination into pop biographies of Andy Warhol, Keith Richards, and a half dozen other celebrities —- is living on modest but sufficient royalties back in Philadelphia where our story started. As for me, those first joints we smoked together somehow morphed into a career as a science writer and drug expert. But fifty years ago, when we were young and skinny and green, and just starting on the path to here from there, we aspired to be poets and Andrew Wylie and Victor Bockris had me in thrall.

I’d moved to Philadelphia after college. Having grown up in the suburbs, the idea of living in a big, filthy city appealed to me. And there were Quakers in Philadelphia. I was a Vietnam War conscientious objector, required to do alternate community service, and the American Friends Service Committee helped find me a job as a shipping clerk at the Shut-In Society, a sheltered workshop in North Philadelphia that employed disabled people but needed a few able-bodied pacifists like me to do the heavy lifting. I was a balding hippie with shoulder-length hair and a moustache, and I reveled in my working-class fantasy of loading and unloading wooden pallets from trucks with a forklift and smoking cigarettes on the loading dock.

I was living in Powelton Village, a pleasant, tree-lined neighborhood of frame houses and gardens in West Philadelphia near the university. It was my first apartment, grungy, sparsely furnished, and cheap. My desk was a stack of wooden milk crates in the corner of the kitchen with a portable Smith Corona electric typewriter perched on top and sheafs of manuscript pages stuffed inside the hollow cases. At night after work, I’d take a shower, cook dinner, drink cheap wine, and write. I tried many styles and forms, I went to poetry readings and lectures, but had no idea what you were supposed to do to become a poet, except that maybe you were supposed to find something—your self, your style, your school, your generation, your love—and that once you found it, all would be revealed.

When I first met Victor Bockris, he also was living in Powelton Village and publishing Telegraph Books, a series of very thin paperbacks of very thin poetry—“Not shallow thin, Mick Jagger thin,” Bockris clarified—with each page a blank but for one short poem, sometimes only one word long, sometimes misspelled.

The Telegraph Books minimalist style was bold, the whispers spoke volumes, and the black-and-white headshots of the poets on the covers (including Patti Smith, Gerard Malanga, and Ted Berrigan, among others), put a brash, youthful face to a next generation of literary stars that was a clear departure from the bearded bards I knew.

Andrew Wylie was collaborating with Victor on the project. I’d met Andrew briefly the previous year when he gave a reading in the basement of a local bookstore. He was skinny and scruffy, with stringy shoulder-length blond hair. He wore a black beret to cover a bald patch and a black leather motorcycle jacket, even then cultivating a slightly menacing image as he paced the stage like a caged leopard (or jackal-to-be) and read poems like:

ZAZZLE trade to ball boy dynamite wig out get off ‘s bright!

The poem he later told me had been composed out of words chosen at random from a dictionary of African American slang.

Andrew gave me Victor’s phone number and said I should meet him if I wanted to know what was really happening on the Philadelphia poetry scene.

A third Telegraph Books collaborator Aram Saroyan, though only a few years older than the rest of us at 28, was one of the founding fathers of minimalist poetry. Saroyan had gained renown when Random House published a book of his one-word poems, which Edwin Newman then read from cover to cover on the NBC Evening News—in one minute.

I would enter this exclusive circle in the months that followed, but apart from my own poetic aspirations, had almost nothing in common with Bockris, Wylie, and Saroyan. Aram was a child of celebrity; his father was the novelist William Saroyan, his mother the actress Carol Grace, and his stepfather the actor Walter Matthau. With his show business connections and good looks, he’d auditioned for the lead role in Mike Nichol’s The Graduate but walked away to pursue poetry, and Dustin Hoffman got the part.

Andrew Wylie was a child of privilege, scion of the literary Boston Wylies. (His father Craig had been an editor at Houghton Mifflin, and his grandfather Horace had left his wife and family to marry the writer Elinor [Hoyt] Wylie, famed in the 1920s for her beauty and sensuous poetry.) Andrew’s privileged background probably accounted for his conflicting needs to be a rebel and a VIP, and for the fact that he had nicer clothes, a nicer place to live, more money, and better pot than any of us. He was generous with what he had, but always had more.

Victor Bockris was a child of scientists, upper crust English public-school elite—his father John Bockris would go on to make headlines when he claimed to have developed a groundbreaking technique to extract hydrogen from water as an energy alternative to fossil fuels. The discovery was almost immediately debunked as a research error.

I was a child of social workers; both my mother and father were trained in the field and my father was the deputy commissioner of mental hygiene in Western New York State.

They all had father issues. Aram’s father was an egomaniacal buffoon, Andrew’s father a moralistic prude, Victor’s father a misogynistic fraud. My father was a decent, kind human being, but I wanted the Who’s Who prestige they had, even if it came with a price of psychic and emotional pain—and oddly, I think they wanted what I had, because like it or not, in the years to come I would become the social worker in their midst, the calm, cool, collected one who kept his head when everyone else was losing theirs.

* * *

Victor Bockris was living with a married couple, Bobbie Bristol and Nate Casto, in their little pink stucco house on Hamilton Street, a few blocks away from me. It would have been a charming little house if not for the sawdust, exposed support beams and holes sledge-hammered in walls as part of the renovations they were doing.

I climbed a creaky staircase to Victor’s room on the second floor to introduce myself at Wylie’s suggestion. Inside, the yellowing walls were covered with phone numbers, dates, lines of poetry, odd sounding words, and sinister scribbles—

a long shower on the edge of experience little girls are great rock stars needles

Victor was using an old bathtub covered with a discarded door for a desk. The room was spartan and boarding school-orderly with two wooden chairs, a mattress on the floor, and clothes hung neatly in a closet missing the door that was his desk.

He was short and slight with a stringy moustache and beard, his hair was long and tousled, his eyes were bright but even when he was young looked tired and old. His English accent came off as stuffy and formal at first but was apropos of a petit bard and all-knowing possessor of the word. Although we were both in our early twenties, I felt like a supplicant at the feet of the master—and on this score Victor Bockris did not disappoint. “Too long, too many words,” he said, brusquely dismissing a sheaf of poems I’d brought for him to read. “Long poems are boring, man, and no one can read them. We need short poems, hard poems, hard like a diamond, hard like Warhol’s Soup Cans.”

The next day I read through hundreds of pages of my poetry stashed in the hollows of my milk crates, selected a dozen short poems, threw everything else into a trash-bag, and dumped it in a garbage can outside my building. It was one of the most satisfying moments in my life as a writer.

For months after that, I struggled to reduce words down to a bare, nonpersonal essence that communicated directly without relying on explanation, my interpretation of the minimalist doctrine:

   All the places she’s in 
     are breathing

I was making progress, but my poetic achievements were nowhere near as daring as those of the Telegraph Three. Saroyan had achieved enviable acclaim for one-word poems like:




And my favorite:


When lighght was published in a collection funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, Congressman William Scherle excoriated the institution for spending $107 per letter on the poem. In response, according to the Saroyan legend, the NEA’s budget was cut by several million dollars.

If Saroyan was conceptual in his extreme brevity, Victor Bockris was comedic. Bockris had perfected a whimsical three-line form:

she’s cute
but she’s

And a series of haiku-like creations he’d dubbed Movie Star Poems:

tony curtis
hurt his


which way
did doris
day go<

Wylie’s poems were neither conceptual nor comedic, they were blunt instruments.

Jump on a
blade – bleed
on a dime,
bring it home
on time – 
I’m a jewel.

His work during this period climaxed in the Sex Poems:

on my neck
I suck
the clit


     I fuck 
you suck
my cock

That poem prompted Jim Quinn, the arts and literature critic for Philadelphia’s alternate newspaper The Drummer to write, in one of Wylie’s more favorable reviews:

“The poem is an embarrassment to poetry—there are only eight words and four of them are dirty, no adjectives, no ideas, no opinions, no descriptions, no tastes, no smells, no sounds, only a record of an event.”

Which was, in fact, the goal—do away with description and make poetry a visceral experience, not to be read but to be experienced. Words and meaning were unimportant, a poem just needed to have a vibe. Bon mot? Bah! Meaning? Meh! It was all about the vibe, man. The vibe!

One-word poems, movie star poems, and sex poems had a vibe and were outrageous enough to attract attention, including the disdain of Steven Berg, editor of the hoary American Poetry Review, who smeared Bockris, Wylie, and me (because by then I was publishing their poems), as purveyors of “sleazy sensationalism,” in an interview in Philadelphia magazine, where to be so smeared was a victory.

Warhol had perfected the art of the put-on, and there was that element in what Bockris, Wylie, and Saroyan were doing, but it wasn’t just an act. They were serious. Serious about shaking up the poetry world. Serious that their minimal poems could have a maximal impact. In a 1970 essay in World Literature Today, Wylie proclaimed: “We do not live under the old order; poetry that reflects our time must break that order.”

Minimalism and conceptual art, the use of isolated words in the work of Lawrence Weiner and Ed Ruscha, advertising headlines, graffiti tags, and McLuhan’s fundamental characteristics of the television era of communication—instant, simultaneous, and multiple—all served as precedent.

Even Bockris and Wylie’s brilliant lunacy was meant to be taken seriously, that our little poems were going to make it big and we’d become, as Bockris envisioned:

in track suits

Crazy as the idea sounded, Pop Art’s success seemed to prove that anything could be commoditized; the Beat poets were American icons whose ephemera as well as their books were treasured (Ginsberg had supposedly sold a clump of his pubic hair for $1,000); and in the early 1970s, Rod McKuen was selling millions of books of poetry, appearing on late-night TV, and filling Carnegie Hall for his readings.

Patti Smith had done a reading at Middle Earth Books in Philadelphia to publicize Seventh Heaven, her first book of poems, published by Victor and Andrew as part of the Telegraph series. She wasn’t a minimalist, but her poems definitely had a vibe, invoking comparisons to the sensual rawness of the Stones and the cool intelligence of Dylan. Why couldn’t poets be rock stars?

Among the Powelton Village poets and cognoscenti, Bockris, Wylie, Saroyan, and Telegraph Books were spoken of in the idolized tones usually reserved for a new Stones album. So, it was no surprise in Spring 1972, when a feature article in The Drummer reported that the trio were on their way to England to launch their skinny poetics in the land of Shakespeare, Blake, and Shelley. The article, accompanied by a photo of them, looking like the Beatles on Rubber Soul in matching black long-sleeved tee-shirts and trousers, was so laudatory and the image so striking I was convinced they were on the verge of really making it, whatever making it was, and that I’d never see Victor Bockris or Andrew Wylie again.

* * *

That summer I finished my alternate service at the Shut-In Society and with neither plans nor prospects for the future, my kitchen became a gathering place for the hungry poets and artists in the neighborhood who filled my newly free time with creative energy in exchange for soup.

Among them was Marty Watt, an 18-year-old high school dropout who looked like Mick Jagger and wrote long, surrealist elegies to his perpetual teenage angst. Marty had his own following and we were getting a scene together that fall when Victor Bockris resurfaced, sitting at a table alone at a reading Marty and I were giving at the neighborhood food co-op. Surrounded by vats of amber honey, bins of granola and brown rice, perfumed by the smell of coffee beans, fresh baked muffins, and patchouli, it was as if the djinn of verse had transported us to the heaven of earthly delights—only none of us could partake of it because the only way to shop at the co-op was with actual money or, if you didn’t have money, to work there, and we were much too busy polishing our reflections in the mirror of make-believe fame and fortune.

Victor had shaved his beard and moustache, and his hair was shorter, parted down the middle Oscar Wilde style. He was wearing a rumpled tweed sportscoat, satin neckerchief, bell-bottom jeans, and blue track shoes. He looked worldly-wise and woebegone.

The English tour with Wylie and Saroyan had been a disaster, yielding neither recognition nor reward, and the three had parted ways deflated and defeated. Wylie was in New York, hanging out at Max’s Kansas City with the Warhol crowd and working with the rock critic Richard Myers (soon to become the punk idol Richard Hell). Saroyan moved with his family to Bolinas, California —- and I unknowingly would become the third leg of the tripod, a subordinate but essential support for Bockris and Wylie’s next phase and our conjoined destinies.

Back in Philadelphia, Victor found eager fans in Marty and me, and we at once involved him in our poetry plans and projects. Marty was organizing a reading for us at the Manning Street Theater, a real performance space with lights, a sound system, and room for an audience of 200. Philadelphia wasn’t a cultural mecca like New York or London, but the scene was positive and receptive, and there was an eager, enthusiastic audience for poetry. That’s when Victor convinced Andrew Wylie to join us.

Andrew had changed in the year since I’d gone to his reading in the bookstore basement. Though a beret still concealed his bald patch, he’d cut his hair short, swapped his bulky black leather jacket for a slimmer, cleaner motocross with a tabbed collar, and added a white silk scarf for virtuoso flare—Maestro Andrew Wylie. He spoke slowly and deliberately, in the flat, firm tones of a lawyer making his case, and smoked unfiltered French Gauloise cigarettes. Dark glasses were smoothly swept on and off to cover and reveal cold gray eyes.

What I knew about Andrew Wylie came mostly from Victor and was fragmentary and somewhat mythical: Harvard magna cum laude classics scholar who could sing Homer’s Odyssey in Greek, official translator of the renowned Italian surrealist poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, New York scene insider, boyfriend of the Warhol Factory superstar Andrea Feldman who’d suicided out a fourteenth-floor window. (“Too much acid,” was Andrew’s summary obit.)

In time, he embellished his legend to me with accounts of being in a mental hospital as a teenager, walking in on Ezra Pound while he was taking a shit, and almost having his cock cut off by a crazy transvestite. With Andrew, you never knew how much of it was true and how much was him building his brand.

The morning of Andrew’s arrival, Victor, Marty, and I piled into my old four-cylinder Saab to pick him up at the train station. He’d brought a new video camera, one of the bulky, old-fashioned VHS recorders you had to hold on your shoulder. We stuffed the camera along with his suitcase into the trunk. Marty sat upfront with me, while Andrew and Victor flipped through a Hollywood gossip magazine in the backseat.

“Do you know who’s breaking up Dean and Kathy Martin’s marriage, man? Tina Sinatra.”

“Do you know who Tina Sinatra’s going out with?”

“Dean Martin?”

“You and your movie stars Victor.”

“Richard Burton’s giving up acting to be a professor.”

The old Saab sputtered and coughed as I exited the parking lot. “Careful, Jeff. Don’t stall or anything,” Andrew called from the back. Good advice and perhaps prophetic as we pulled out into the streets of Philadelphia.

We were going to make the scene, do a number, and it was going to be great! Everything we did was great. Victor Bockris and Andrew Wylie said so. It had to be great because we did it. It was great even when it wasn’t.

I’d cut my long hippie hair and shaved my moustache because that look was too laid back for Bockris and Wylie. The afternoon of the Manning Street Theater reading, Marty Watt and I went shopping for clothes in the secondhand stores on South Street. I bought an all-black outfit: black sweater, black corduroy trousers, and a pair of scuffed-up black Beatle boots.

Bockris and Wylie were to act as MCs for the event and to read their poems in between Marty, me, and a couple of other poets on the program, but they’d bought a gallon of cheap wine to loosen up before the show and polished off half of it before going on. They drank the rest of the wine onstage during the reading, reminiscent perhaps of Kerouac clanking the jug with a spoon and passing the tokay during Allen Ginsberg’s debut of Howl. Only this evening didn’t end with jug-passing beat camaraderie, but instead with Wylie staggering around the stage yelling at the audience to fuck off and Bockris sitting on the empty jug, looking out at the exiting crowd with dead eyes.

Neither of them could handle alcohol and this would just be the first of many drunken catastrophes for Bockris and Wylie, though neither of them would admit it.

The next day, they came around for dinner, ebullient and as full of themselves as ever.

“Well—what did you think, Jeff? Come on. Be honest,” Andrew laughed excitedly.

They knew it had been a disaster, I knew it had been a disaster, and I knew they knew it had been a disaster, but it wasn’t a good idea to answer questions like this from Andrew in the negative. That would make you a boring deadbeat and I was too covetous of my new status as satellite to their twin suns.

“Well…” I rubbed my chin, stalling.

“It was great, man! Great!” shouted Andrew impatiently, as if the answer was obvious.

“Yeah, man, it was great!” shouted Victor.

“Well…” I argued back meekly, “the audience didn’t seem to like it that much. They were booing.”

“They just didn’t understand how great it was. It wasn’t just a poetry reading it was an experience, man, an experience no one will forget,” Victor asserted.

“But you were so drunk you couldn’t stand up, and you were calling the audience a bunch of cunts.”

“They were a bunch of cunts,” Andrew rejoined. “But we were great!”

There was no use arguing. I was just too short on wisdom to appreciate the triumph.

“You’re right. You were great!” I conceded.

Not long after that, Andrew declared to Victor and me that we were never going to make it as poets; we should drop poetry completely and instead focus on writing magazine articles and books that paid real money.

Andrew always had a plan, and more than any of us (certainly more than me who had no plan whatsoever), he had a vision of the future; at least he could make you believe he did. He was a great initiator who quickly lost patience with any task that took time—which is probably why he became an agent and not a writer despite his talent.

But, as time would tell, he was right. After a few lost years as an amphetamine addict, he’d clean up his act and borrow enough money to buy a desk in a small but reputable literary agency, where he started his unrelenting climb to the top of the publishing world. He deftly negotiated six-figure book deals for Victor, Aram, and me, for which I’ll be forever grateful, then dropped us from his roster when he had bigger fish like Salmon Rushdie and Philip Roth to fry.

The last I heard, Andrew Wylie was still riding the waves of good fortune, like a Gogol character, charming literary widows into representation deals to expand an ever-growing roster of dead writers.

Excerpted from Divine Youth: A Memoir

–Jeff Goldberg


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