from Cento Magazine
The Air of June Sings
When Ed Dorn and his wife Jennifer Dunbar Dorn entered my life, a major shot of life-long adrenalin penetrated myself and the Chicago atmosphere. Although Ed's Chicago years (1970,1971) are rarely recorded, these were hard core developmental years in national and local American history with an impact that I personally considered nuclear or new-clear. Chicago had just suffered through the Democratic National Convention havoc in 1968. Martin Luther King was killed, Bobby Kennedy was killed and the Chi-town air lingered with the stench of the ongoing conflict in Vietnam. On the other side of this coin was that the counter-culture was still in latent bloom although in Chicago it felt like a semi-arid wasteland with no particular direction. When Ed and Jenny first hit town I recorded a small two line description about the initial affect of their presence. It was simply entitled "Ed Dorn New Year"
Ed was hired by University professor and playwright Alan Bates. It was a pure hire that struck an amazing target, giving alignment and purpose to some floundering students who were fooling around with poetry either as personal therapy or an expression of emotions that wouldn't allow "the voices"to die.
Jennifer Dunbar Dorn added to the glorious energy. Jenny had her own unique intensity. She was high strung, attractive and a talented writer herself, plus she was English complete with a real English accent. When we discovered her brother John Dunbar was married to Marianne Faithfull and operated the Indica gallery and book shop where John Lennon first met Yoko Ono (who was putting on one of her avant garde shows there) we were in ecstasy.
Jenny's connection that close to the Beatles, coupled with Ed's poetic fervor was an amazing bit of cosmic karma thrown in our Midwest laps. As students, it was like getting the Krell Mind boost. A genius alien race found in a classic sci-fi movie entitled Forbidden Planet.
Rather than wonder what a working poet was, other than print in a student's text book, here was a poet who not only instructed but gave readings of his work, read incredibly and wrote brilliantly. Ed was a more than a teacher, he was a guide. To me he was an aristocratic technician with language and thought. And was the fastest on the word-thought trigger as anyone I ever knew.
I remember forcing my way into Ed and Jenny's space when I first stopped at the 911 club, the nicknamed address of the brick two flat they lived in on Diversey Avenue, located on Chicago's Northside. Many amazing parties happened there accented with great dialogues, personalities and chemistry, as Ed brought in poets from throughout the country and abroad. Anselm Hollo, Robert Creeley, Anne Waldman, Tom Raworth, Philip Whalen, J. H. Prynne and Ted Berrigan, just to name a few. We couldn't have received a better creative writing education at Harvard or Yale. In fact in my opinion Ed and Jenny put us ahead of the game because as students we were reading books and living an Urban Carlos Castaneda existence that tapped our Unconscious for future reference. So for a brief flash in time an English Black Mountain had settled on the plains and if you payed attention it was quite a combination.
When Ed and Jenny left Northeastern University in the early 70's we stayed in touch and I followed them throughout their many travels and homes. From Mexico to Kent State, from San Francisco to Healdsburg and La Hoya California with many varied stops in between, finally settling and raising their family in Boulder at the University of Colorado in 1977, where Ed became a tenured professor and eventually head of the Graduate MFA program.
I was Ed and Jenny's Chicago Correspondent for Rolling Stock magazine, which they began in 1980. One issue published my report on the first poetry "bouts"held in Chicago in 1981. Discovered by another of Ed's students and "Stone Wind Poet" Al Simmons, this article started a chain reaction of National Poetry "Main Events" (competitions) that became the premier attraction at the Taos, New Mexico Poetry Circus and was a blueprint for what eventually evolved into the culture of Slam performance poetry. Not that Ed or Jenny enjoyed or artistically approved the "silliness"of such competitions, it was just that their publishing of this small report was at the root of a performance poetry movement that sweeps up the youth involved in the poetry world today.
I had the good fortune to hear Ed read from many of his books countless times, once reading the whole of Gunslinger in Evanston, Illinois sponsored by Northwestern University. He blew the roof off the place.
Talk about writing and performance, Ed was the ultimate example that truly great work can perform itself on the page or in the listener's ear. Ed was a master of both. He was impeccable with the short poem or the long. He was Academy and Street. Blue Collar and White World. R & B and Classics. Funk and Funny. Poetic Journalist or Political sharpshooter. A pro that could take the poetic ball and do whatever he wanted with it. His readings were always intelligent, entertaining, instructive and accessible. He could change the atmosphere of a room.
Like all of us on Earth, Ed was not a perfect angel. He couldn't put up with mediocrity and he could cut or nail you to the core with a line or a look. He was a word chemist who at times may have seen his students as experiments that he could observe in his mental lab. But that just came with the territory. An what a manifest destiny it was.
The last time I saw Ed and Jenny was in Taos, in 1997. He was giving a reading of his new work at the Taos Poetry Circus. You could see he was drained but he still read elegantly. A true poet- warrior till the end. I also had the good fortune to include excerpts and poems from his most recent work in a Taos poetry anthology entitled Taos Poetry Circus: The Nineties.
When Ed died the poetry world truly lost a cultural anchor. A truer mentor I could not have experienced in my wildest dreams. In my opinion he was and is one of the best poets of the past century. A Bernard Malamud's Roy Hobbs of the written word, with Jenny's steadfast backing, partnership and support. They will always remain immaculate inspirations.
Some of that inspiration deposited itself into my "Memory Banks"--recollections of interactions with Ed over the years that continue to consistently pay spiritual dividends. Here are a few excerpts:
The Poet and the Kid / 1970
THE KID: "God Ed, when I graduate I want to be just like you. An active writer/poet. Sharp in mind, healthy in body. knocking down the language like bowling pins in a Oklahoma tornado."
THE POET: (smiling) "Kid, you don't want to do this.(referring to Poetry as a "Career") Let me tell you Kid, it's not what you make it out to be."
(But the Kid was overwhelmed by passion and circumstance and he just had to find out. Until years later...)
THE KID: "Ed, You were right. But now I'm too far gone. I've stepped too far in. It's ruined my life."
THE POET: "Kid, it's ruined a lot of lives."
THE KID: Really?
THE POET: Poetry doesn't ruin lives Kid, people do.
On the Clock / 1970
I drove Ed to the Chicago suburbs to check out a used foreign made car he was going to buy. When we arrived and got in for a test drive I said, "Ed don't buy this car, the clock works. Anytime a clock works in a Used car there's something hidden that's wrong."
Ed gave me a maybe the kid's got something look, started the engine and took it for a drive.
As we headed around the block, made a left turn to stretch it out on Ol' 66, the clock stopped.
When we drove back into the owner's driveway Ed bought the car immediately.
"Any car that can stop time has got to be mine," he said.
Just to make sure, I followed him back to the 911 club for a timeless stay that lasted forever.
The Classroom / 1970
In a University creative writing class, during the second week of Ed's teaching induction, a young female student raised her hand and asked, "Mr. Dorn, isn't poetry just an expression of the pain of life put into words on a page?"
Ed just whisked his hands through his hair and stared right back at the young lady.
"Whew, do people still think like that," he responded.
There was an infinity of silence.
Warlock / 1971
One evening when Al "commissioner" Simmons and I visited Ed and Jenny at the 911 club we sat in their dining room with them watching the western film Warlock. It starred Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn and was about a good/bad Marshall (Fonda), who eventually took the town apart and began burning it down when he smashed a bottle of whiskey into a wall in a bar and lit a match to it, starting a major fire.
With Quinn trying to quell him, Fonda began storming through the streets of the town shouting "What are you worth!" to the frightened and befuddled townspeople. Al and I just sat there mesmerized.
Just before the movie ended. Ed looked at both of us and said,"What are you worth!" Then he and Jenny got up from their chairs and went upstairs. We just sat there, thinking they were coming back down to finish the film. But they never did. So after ten minutes of student catatonic staring we realized they weren't coming down as I gazed at Al and said, "What ARE we worth?"
We both got up, turned off the TV and exited the 911 into the dark Diversey streets wondering if we were worth anything at all.
Spring / 1971
Once the "stone wind poet guys" all gathered at Ed and Jenny's for a 911 club afternoon.
At about 2 pm Ed offered peyote buttons to us all. When we asked, "what's this?" all Ed said, was "Spring Cleaning."
Whatta Spring that was.
Kent State/ 1974 or 75
A few years after the National Guard's gunning down of the students Ed was teaching at Kent State. We heard there was a literary Fall festival going on there so Al Simmons and I drove his VW bus west to the Ohio provinces for an opportunity and a visit.
We slept in Ed and Jenny's barn and one morning Michael McClure ascended the ladder (complete with poet's scarf) inquiring what we were doing up there, figuring we were "crashing"the scene.
Al and I asked Ed and Jenny's permission to barn-sleep so when McClure's phrasing came off as arrogant and scolding Al and I responded to Michael by telling him we were "just resting."
After some early morning bantering we felt like throwing Michael down the wood slatted ladder.
Later that afternoon after attempting to view Stan Brackage's documentary on autopsies there was a spontaneous dinner gathering where I flung an observation off at Ed.
"Did you notice everyone here is still so freaked out that they're trying to blend in by wearing after shave lotion over their beards."
Ed laughed and agreed, then looked at McClure, author of the great play "The Beard" saying: "That's why I let them sleep in my barn."
Kerouac / 1982
When Henry Kanabus and I attended the Kerouac fest back in 1982 sponsored by the Naropa Institute, Ed was teaching at the University of Colorado. Both academies being situated in Boulder. Poetic times were tense because of certain polorizations that existed between what could be considered at the time two factions in poetic thinking and politics. While in a circle of poets (Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Ted Berrigan, Henry Kanabus and myself) chatting inside the University of Colorado's lobby, Ed struts in, sees the circle, and makes contact.
"So Ed," Allen says, relieved that maybe some pressure would be eased. "are you hear for the reading?"
Ed just gave the circle that Ed arrowed smile, took a hit off his Camel and replied, "I'm out to buy hinges." Then he briskly headed off into the University hallway disappearing into a bevy of students. The poetic Sphere drifting in Space. Here is one of my poems from the "Book of God" I wrote in honor of that moment:
Hombre / 1992
The one line in a movie that always reminded me of Ed, was Paul Newman's (Amer-Apache) half-breed role in Hombre, an early sixties western. With Newman riding shotgun on a stagecoach that was ambushed and the passengers robbed, humiliated, raped and left there most likely to die. Newman took up the responsibility of attempting to get them through the tough hostile countryside. When asked by one of the soft East Coast passengers why they should trust their lives to him. Newman, as Hombre responded, "Cause I can cut it lady."
When I told Ed of my analogy, he just thought past me and said. "Hombre, huh."
We both left it at that.
* * *
There were hundreds of memory bank moments that occurred with Ed and Jenny throughout the years; playing guitar at their parties, shooting pool with Ed in one of the classic Chicago parlors that has since been torn down, (once I ran the table in two consecutive eight ball games on him and we immediately switched to playing billiards where he totally kicked my ass.) Then there was tennis in Boulder, trekking to Newtown in Chicago to buy the Allman brothers' "Live at the Fillmore East," album, listening and dancing away our troubles in their living room on a Chicago summer's afternoon...
Just a couple of weeks before Ed died, I called Jenny when I experienced some spontaneous spiritual ballast. It felt like thought tentacles reaching and pulling me across the grey November sky. Jenny said Ed was pretty bad and it wouldn't be long. I was shocked, trying to prepare myself for the inevitable that happens to us all.
I never ascribe to the practice of writing post-mortem poems about poets when they, as "the cliche" says, pass on, but in Ed's case I just had to let out my personal grief in words on a page. My gut thinks Ed despised this practice but I had to do it anyway. And my gut also tells me Ed would question or devour me for the "grand scheme" of my expression in the piece that he put his guns down. So all virtuous apologies to the poetry gods, whatever plane, whatever dimension wherein they reside.
I simply loved the man and his family. It was an honor to have interacted in his presence for well over 25 years. He changed my life. He changed a lot of lives. His legacy speaks for itself.
Terry Jacobus, Chicago, June 2003.
Terry Jacobus received his degree in Secondary Education and Creative Writing at Northeastern Illinois University in 1971. He studied with Gwendolyn Brooks and Ed Dorn in the University's creative writing program. Jacobus is the author of three books, The Simple Ballad--a four part performed narrative. Fine, a collection of poems, and The Poet Never Loses His Girl, a collection of prosetry stories. He is currently working on a new book of poetry entitled The Book of God. He was Chicago correspondent for Rolling Stock Magazine from 1980-1990, poetry Editor of Strong Coffee Magazine from 1992-1997, and was the first World Heavyweight Poetry Champion in Taos, New Mexico when he defeated Gregory Corso in 1982.