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Callaloo 25.1 (2002) 190-196
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Between Black, Brown & Beige
Latino Poets and the Legacy of Bob Kaufman
. . . the colors of an earthquake are black, brown & beige, on the Ellington scale, such sweet thunder, there is a silent beat in between the drums.
--Bob Kaufman, "Oct. 5th, 1963"
I. Earthquake Weather
I look out the window of my apartment in the Mission District of San Francisco, and listen for the beat between the drums. Many years have passed since the center of artistic and bohemian life shifted from North Beach to this Latino neighborhood, where poets and painters from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Colombia, New York, Texas, Los Angeles, and Fresno revitalized the city after most of the Beat generation writers went back East. Nevertheless, the reverberations of that cultural movement still can be felt in storefront galleries, bookstores, and cafés around the Mission--though they fade with each artist forced to relocate because of rising rent. More than a decade after the Loma Prieta earthquake, this diverse community is experiencing yet another shift. Bob Kaufman, an often invisible and ignored Beat, lived here once, when his North Beach already had given way to the kind of upheaval transforming the Mission today.
II. The Real Beat
Kaufman stayed briefly in the Mission, but his impact on Latino poets here and elsewhere has been enduring. Former members of Pocho-Che, a Latino literary collective based in the Bay Area during the 1970s, single him out from the rest of the Beats. The fact that he wasn't white appealed to them as writers from another minority group; however, it was as the truest embodiment of the Beat ethos and aesthetic that [End Page 190] he gained their lasting respect. To them, Kaufman epitomized the rebellion against conformity and the poetic adaptation of jazz championed by Kerouac, Ginsberg, and the other Beats. He was the most political, having been a labor activist before turning his protests into poetry on such subjects as the execution of Caryl Chessman by the State of California; he was the most improvisational, famous for his spontaneous readings on the streets of North Beach and at the Co-Existence Bagel Shop (which led to numerous confrontations with police and stays in jail); and he was the most musical, a native of New Orleans steeped in the culture of jazz. Such claims, what Maria Damon wittily dubs the "Tales of Kaufman," project a legend that has traveled far beyond San Francisco.
Raúl Salinas, Chicano poet from Austin, Texas and former member of Pocho-Che, dedicates his most recent book, East of the Freeway, to Kaufman and bestows on him an honorific: "The REAL Beat." In "Shame on the Shaman," Salinas extends the tribute by taking us to
. . . a long ago
almost never, never-land
where the Real Beat lived
in the heart of a
'Will the real Mr. Kaufman
please come to the counter for your
dental plates. The County paid
for these you know, oughta consider yourself lucky.'
Pluck his poems out as he sleeps!
weeping for those who never had a poem
unto themselves, and therefore
doomed to gloomy garbage-rummaging
for lost-found poems to call
Salinas refers to details of Kaufman's biography and oeuvre--his false teeth and his book Golden Sardine--as well as to a few ironic facts: his restless imagination in spite of self-imposed dormancy (the 10 year vow of silence taken after the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963); his abundance of poems in the face of poverty; and his transformation of reality in the midst of unreality.
Eliot's The Wasteland comes to mind, as does Lorca's Poet in New York. Indeed, one of the other connections between Kaufman and Pocho-Che is their deep admiration for the visiting Spanish poet. There are obvious invocations of his spirit in the Lorca poems of Kaufman, Salinas, and Roberto Vargas. They all respond to the way that Lorca decries the alienation in modern urban America through dislocated images and...