Remembering Ted Joans: Black Beat Surrealist
Ted Joans’ poetry is one paradigm of an era, soundings from one of the more colorfull individuals who lit it up, whose voice still brightens the curious world he ceaselessly observes. […] Ted is still the world’s most Bohemian Beat, Outside Brother.
— Amiri Baraka
What to say about this terrific, unbeatable and indefatigable person, wedder of bop and rhyme-scope, endless inventor of securing vision and wonder, primary link indeed to so much in this still phenomenal world, which is worth going to look at, and to hold on to with your own heart, once witnessed — what a wonderful story-teller, of all stories, all streets, all places to sit down and eat, with the great legendary persons of the past, the last he always knew, as Charlie Parker or Paul Éluard — or how to get to Timbuktoo, by yourself.
— Robert Creeley
I first met Ted Joans at 2222 2nd Avenue in Seattle, Washington. The occasion was the vernissage for a series of new drawings he had made, modeled after his early painting Bird Lives! (now part of the permanent collection at the de Young Museum), accompanied by a poetry reading. The venue, Signature Bound Books, was one of those small, highly selective bookstores that seem to have gone the way of the dodo. Seattle was full of them in those days. It was the autumn of 1995 and my life was about to change in ways undreamt of, and yet dreamed just the same. “My marvelous dream surrealized,” as Ted would say. I had just returned to Seattle, where I had been living for the last six years, from a several-months stay in San Francisco, nursing a broken heart. It was one of those first romances in youth that you feel you may never recover from, but of course you do. Life will move on with or without you. A young man of twenty-five, I made the decision on that fateful trip to become an artist, deeply under the spell of Bob Kaufman, jazz, and the nascent utopia of hip-hop as envisioned by De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Gang Starr.
Ted Joans was a legendary figure, one whom I never imagined meeting, as his dramatic departure from the United States in the early 1960s carried with it his promise never to return. The US, he had famously said then, was the office to the cemetery of Europe, and he was returning to the garden of Africa. Indeed, long before LeRoi Jones had ever heard of Amiri Baraka, Ted was living in Africa — Timbuctoo, in northern Mali, to be exact — where he kept a home for over thirty years. As Allen Ginsberg correctly noted in the marginalia of his own correspondence with Ted, now part of the Ginsberg Papers at the Green Library of Stanford University, Joans had read in more countries in Africa than any American poet, before or since.
Paris was also a home base for Ted, and aside from occasional trips across the Atlantic to New York, a North American sighting was rare. I was hanging out at Café Roma on Broadway at East John, around the corner from Twice Sold Tales, a bookstore where I had been hired and fired three times by the infamous Jamie Lutton, when I saw the flier advertising the event at Signature Bound featuring Ted. You could have knocked me over with a feather — I could hardly believe my eyes. Ted Joans in Seattle? The date on the flier was that very night! I grabbed my girlfriend, Heidi, filled with glee. She was as stunned as I was. We checked the clock. It was only an hour away. We got on the next bus taking us from Capitol Hill to Belltown.
The room was packed with literary intelligentsia, all striking me as a bit too austere in my buoyant mood. I could see Ted at the head of the room, impossibly hale, handsome, elegantly attired, with a bearing of great dignity. He was in the company of an astonishingly beautiful woman whom I would later learn was the artist Laura Corsiglia, his femmemoiselle (a neologism Ted borrowed from fellow Surrealist Jacques Hérold). The proprietors of Signature Bound were over the moon. This, after all, was something of a coup, having a pre-eminent poet such as Ted reading that night, surrounded by his own original artworks.
Ted mostly performed selections from his recent book, Double Trouble, which also featured the photography and poetry of Hart Leroy Bibbs, another denizen of Parisian Black bohemia. Ted would later say, “I do not sing the poems, but rather swing the poems.” His rhythmic confidence was uncanny, the words pulsing with their own individual light, dancing off his tongue as if he were an instrument being played by some grand invisible force. Between poems he would offer asides, aphorisms of wisdom, anecdotes from his decades as an international traveler and statesman of Surrealism. He spoke of his spiritual fathers, as he called them, André Breton and Langston Hughes, both of whom had mentored Ted at critical stages of his own development as an artist. It was Breton himself, founder of Surrealism, who had famously declared Ted the only Black American Surrealist! Although he did not speak much that night about his abiding friendships with Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, or the late Jack Kerouac, that was what most of the assembled crowd wanted to hear; Ted had been a founding member of the Beat Generation, deeply enshrined in its earliest lore.
After the reading was over, wine was poured, and soon Ted and Laura were surrounded by attendees, peppering him with questions and ladling out praise. Heidi found the scene to be pretentious and wanted to go. I didn’t much feel like wading through the well-wishers and, taking her lead, we re-entered the autumn night.
We were on cloud nine as we walked the streets of Belltown, recounting every poem and turn of phrase, wondering aloud what had brought this good fortune our way. Heidi, who practiced Santeria, was convinced that it was Oshun that was responsible for these events, assuring me that this was also a sign the goddess approved of our new love. I had been reading Maya Deren’s classic Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti that summer, and the idea of African deities playing decisive roles in human affairs seemed as close an explanation as any.
I returned to Signature Bound the next day and spoke with one of the proprietors, Gregor, about the previous night’s festivities. He informed me that Ted had now moved to Seattle and would be back again for the finissage in a few weeks with another reading. I could hardly believe my ears.
Ted stayed very much on my mind those next few weeks, and I promised myself that next time I would summon the courage to speak to him.
The next reading was a far more subdued affair and apparently less publicized, as there were far fewer in attendance. I was alone this time and when it was over, I walked up to Ted to introduce myself. My head was full of questions and I asked how he was. “Well, I am very sad. I just got the news that a good friend of mine has returned to the ancestors. Don Cherry.” My heart jumped. I had been immersed in Ornette Coleman’s early music in those years and Don Cherry was never far from my inner world. Ted saw my being taken aback, and said, “Oh, you know his music?” He seemed pleased, almost relieved in a small way, that I did. We began talking and before I could think it through, I found myself asking if he had known Malcolm X, a question that had been brewing since that first night. He spoke of meeting Malcolm in Paris on what had been his last trip to Europe, only months before he was assassinated, but also much earlier in New York, during his years with the Nation of Islam. He mentioned something he called the “Black Power Postcard,” which Malcolm had signed on their last meeting. Laura approached and very gently let us know that their car had arrived and it was time to go. To my surprise, Ted suggested that we meet sometime, perhaps at Elliott Bay Book Company, which had a café downstairs. They lived in the International District, he said, which was a short walk to our prospective rendezvous. We exchanged numbers and off they went.
Still laughing to keep from lying, thus steel wool.
— Ted Joans
Ted was the youngest person I have ever met. His happy eyes and brilliant smile were always full of wit, ready to embrace the world with care. However, like his close friend, the novelist Chester Himes, Ted did not suffer fools. His straight talk was in the tradition of the blues. “Damn sure telling it like it is,” he would say time and again, was the key to survival, which he regarded as a uniquely Black vocation. As generous and warm as he could be among friends, he could slice apart and cut down enemies, dispatching them with a few well-chosen words.
His vibrant spirit and vivid language were always imbued with authority of feeling and a profound sense of reality, one he called the “poemlife.” That is to say he strictly believed in a lack of separation between life and poetry — that they were one and the same as far as he was concerned, entirely indistinct. Those who viewed them exclusively could accomplish neither fully, he would intone, and would remain mystified by both. Though considerably unorthodox, this point of view Ted practiced rigorously and with an exacting discipline, as evidenced by his massive oeuvre and equally large extended international family and circle of devoted friends. His artful living was as gracious and elegant as his many drawings and poems, in some ways more so. It was his day-to-day that invited the marvelous with each waking moment, always open to the possibilities of learning and new discoveries. (This philosophy is illustrated in Ntozake Shange’s theatrical concept of the “choreopoem,” wherein breath line, physical movement, dance, speech, and music are all melded into a single unified gesture.) This was the beginning of my Teducation, the most important education I ever received.
When next we met, sure enough, it was in the café below the bookstore at Elliott Bay Book Company. I had taken a table below the staircase. As Ted arrived alone, he instructed that one should never sit below the stairs anywhere, as something could easy fall or be kicked off of them and onto you. He saw my cappuccino and let me know that, as I got older, I’d learn to drink straight espresso, which was stronger and less expensive. He was right. I didn’t realize it then, but Ted was already starting to look out for me. We looked around for a table for us to move to and I suggested one near by the far wall. “No, no. I prefer ones without corners, round ones.” A Beat to the end, Ted seemed to be against squares in every form, including furniture. “[The corners] can catch you when you try to get up and leave.”
He asked me questions about what I was doing in Seattle and how long I had lived there. I explained that I was doing a radio show on a pirate signal, one that focused on jazz music, and that I often read poetry over the air as part of the broadcast. He was curious about how familiar I was with his work and generously recommended some useful resources. Included were Michel Fabre’s fabulous From Harlem to Paris: Black Writers in France, 1840–1980, an enormously important book with an entire chapter on Ted, as well as Ron Sukenick’s invaluable Down and In: Life in the Underground: Bohemian to Hip to Beat to Rock and Punk — Mutiny in American Culture. Sukenick had described Ted as the last truly bohemian artist.
Our conversation turned back to Don Cherry, and Ted let me know that he had performed often with Cherry throughout the years when he was a resident of Europe. He mentioned his lifelong friendship with Archie Shepp, who had played with Cherry as part of the New York Contemporary Five. With those names in the air I brought up the only one I actually knew personally, the jazz master John Tchicai. “Oh, yes, I know John. Wonderful man. We use to do Happenings together in Denmark.” Known for his collaborations with poets, I had met the great Tchicai years earlier when I was stranded in San Francisco. With no way home, John offered me not only a ride close to Sacramento, where I was staying at the time, but also put me up for the night at his home in nearby Davis. I felt relieved that we had at least one mutual friend, which helped me relax a bit.
I lost track of the time, but soon enough Ted had to go. There was a book festival coming up in Pioneer Square later that month, and he asked if I’d like to join him. I was so elated at the invitation I almost shouted yes, but kept my cool and calmly agreed to meet there.
The book festival, whose name I forget just now, featured Norman Mailer that year, and also Charles Johnson. It was there that I first witnessed something I would see time and again over the many years Ted and I were friends: the astounding deference and respect that even the most towering artists would show him. My first example was Norman Mailer.
Mailer was at a signing table and the line was horrendously long and frenetic with anticipation. Impatient fans seemed to swarm just in front of him, refusing to end their moment of interaction as he autographed their books and moved on. Ted said to me, “I need to ask him about something.” “What?” I wondered. “Well, it’s about the Beat Funeral, you see. We made a tape recording. Mailer, James Baldwin, Shel Silverstein, Seymour Krim, myself, and others. The whole thing was getting so commercial, we decided to bury it!” he laughed. “We had a proper funeral with a casket, with the words Beat Generation painted on it and carried it in a procession through [Greenwich] Village. Afterwards there was a wake and we all paid our respects.”
The tape Ted was searching for was a reel-to-reel recording of the eulogies, delivered by Mailer, Baldwin, himself, and the others. The last owner of the tape was a friend of Mailer’s who had gone to prison and Ted wanted to know what had happened to it. I looked at the huge anxious crowd assembled and said to Ted, “Maybe you had better wait until it’s over.” Ted gave me the funniest look, somewhere between a laugh and a dare, and shot to the head of the line. Sure enough, Mailer held up the signing for a good long time while he and Ted caught up on old times. I was too far away to hear what they were saying as they laughed and nodded at each other, sometimes shaking heads, sometimes hands. The exasperated onlookers couldn’t figure out what was going on. Ted returned to me. “Oh well, I guess it’s gone. He took it to prison with him.”
Later Charles Johnson spotted Ted in the crowd and thanked him from the podium for showing him what he called, “the real Africa. […] Ted Joans, ladies and gentleman.” Ted stood, smiled, took a short bow and sat down. On the walk back through Pioneer Square, I asked if Ted had ever met Maya Deren? “No, she was before my time in the Village. But they were still talking about her when I arrived.”
Around this time, the Whitney Museum of American Art had mounted a major exhibition entitled, Beat Culture and the New America, 1950–1965. A monumental survey, the Whitney shrewdly chose examples far beyond the confines of literature. Painting, sculpture, film, music, and dance were all included in the exhibition, and Ted’s visual art was prominently displayed. Ted and Laura had attended the opening that November in New York along with many of the other principals in the show, including Gregory Corso. Ted later said to me that Corso had whispered into his ear at the reception, “You know, now that they’ve got us standing around in museums, it really is over.”
The role of “objective chance” was a motivating force in all of Ted’s action. His embrace and cultivation of the marvelous relied upon it and, as I said before, finding nothing to separate art and life in his view, he allowed it to guide many of his impulses. Strangely, and more often than not in those early months of our friendship, whenever we were on the phone together, one or the other of us would be cooking. Once I was cooking broccoli and Ted asked, “Do you know about broccoli hocks?” offering a recipe for the stocks below the flowers, “and do you have rice?” The next time I saw him he told me that he and Laura were members of Costco, and they had room for one more person on their plan. Would I like to join, he offered? I took them up on it and of course at each of our visits to the warehouse, I would buy the extra-large bags of the brown rice Ted would recommend as the best deal.
Ted regarded a good meal as part of what he called his Holy Trinity: Food, Sex, and Art, all of which were ecstatically entwined in his “poemlife” and unique vision of the world. In the dozen or more readings and performances I witnessed in the years I knew him, he preached his Holy Trinity as a medicinal gospel. Sexuality was especially sacred, and he denounced its repressions in America, which he saw as a symptom of Puritanism that led to both violence and premature death. He would cite Lenore Kandel’s beautiful poem, “To Fuck with Love,” as among his favorite expressions of the healing erotic principles he espoused. Art, he was convinced, was the cure for the ailing spirits of human beings yearning for freedom. And honesty was the precursor to all possible freedoms. Ted was particularly sympathetic to those longing to be unbound by the trappings of consumerism — those who were lost among the false mirrors of advertising, not knowing which way to turn. Art, the miracle of creation, was the answer as far as he was concerned. At the very least, it could provide the right set of clues.
Ted saw pointless death in consumer culture, which he explicitly linked to the weapons industries, correctly citing the United States as the world’s largest arms dealer. The industry, he asserted, was the root cause for much of the warfare being fought throughout the world. This was a fact he often spoke of to his audiences, not always to their comfort, as some believed that America’s wars were about more than profiteering.
Ted had vowed never to celebrate Independence Day in the United States on July 4th, as it was, to his mind, a glorification of the militarism that he adamantly opposed. It was also his birthday, an occasion he often celebrated on any chosen day of the year, as often as he wished. In the years I knew Ted, he was never in the United States on July 4th, even if it meant just taking a simple trip to Canada.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Ted valued the role of the poet as one who demystifies language and the universe. Although his knowledge of the world was prodigious, sometimes even occult, he did not embroider his poems with baffling allusions nor obscurities. Although he could become impatient with ignorance, Ted believed devoutly in the natural intelligence of all human beings. A self-described “anti-academic,” Ted often found himself at odds with the classist, racist attitudes so pervasive in institutions of higher education. He was entirely unafraid of denouncing those whom he considered his enemies within it, a brave and bold maneuver to be sure. This stance would continue to win him considerable admiration, even among those whose pretense of collegiality would not allow them to choose a side. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, Ted continues to be neglected by American scholars of poetry and the Beat Generation to this day. Save for the recent efforts of Wendy Tronrud at Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, with her astounding Ted Joans: Poet Painter / Former Villager Now / World Traveller (Part I & II), very little has been published on Ted in the United States in the last fifteen years (and this despite the branding of the Beat Generation as a hip commodity (again!)). Though Black culture was very much at the center of the movement, the ever-widening tent of Beat Generation studies and its commercial equivalent in the publishing world continues to exclude the Black Beats.
As time went on, Ted urged me to leave Seattle. In his estimation, it was holding me back from my true purpose in life, which he believed in part was to become a writer. He suggested that I embark on a project he called 3 Black Beats, a study of Bob Kaufman, Amiri Baraka, and himself.
At Ted’s urging, I moved to San Francisco and later New Orleans to study Bob Kaufman’s life and poetry. We stayed in constant communication, occasionally seeing each other, usually in San Francisco, sometimes in Seattle, and my Teducation continued.
In one of the earliest letters in our correspondence, Ted wrote to me, “You must acknowledge that the vitality of [S]urrealism lies in its capacity to embrace within the fields of poetic action creative modes (holy hip onwardness) other than those accessible to the writer, conventionally identified as the poet. So no poems but prose in your life style.”
To be in his presence was always edifying, but perhaps most extraordinary was what he offered in the way of Surrealism. What it was, and what it wasn’t. Ted was intolerant of any bastardization of the movement and was a fierce defender against its perversion toward unseemly commercial ends. A strict and inflexible line was drawn between that which was properly Surrealism and those things which were objectively surrealistic, and not falling within the Surrealist Manifesto’s definition. Ted was not a joiner of anything, he would say, except one thing: Surrealism. He occasionally denounced with caustic wit those he deemed fakes, fraudulently using Surrealism to their own malfeasant ends. His strongest American allies in these efforts were Franklin and Penelope Rosemont, as well as his femmemoiselle Laura Corsiglia, a Surrealist herself.
Ted was not one to push a lot of books at you, the way some poets and writers do; he did give me some volumes, however: For Malcom, the 1969 anthology of poems for Malcolm X, published by Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press; early issues of Arsenal, the Surrealist journal published by the Rosemonts; a copy of Sam Greenlee’s novel, The Spook who Sat by the Door, which he recommended highly, the passages in the novel mentioning jazz underlined for me in pencil. Comte de Lautréamont’s Maldoror he considered absolutely essential, and was delighted when a new translation by Alexis Lykiard was published. He was especially enthusiastic about Breton’s Anthology of Black Humor making its way into English in 1997 by way of City Lights Books.
Langston Hughes, as I mentioned, was very much the axis around which all of Ted’s work revolved, and Hughes’s essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” is crucial, he agreed, to any understanding of it.
When Ted visited San Francisco in later years, he and Laura would often stay at the home of V. Vale, whose RE/Search Publications I had worked for briefly. It was there at 20 Romolo Street where I heard again of the “Black Power Postcard” that Ted had mentioned was signed by Malcolm X. The postcard, depicting Ted on one of his many journeys across the Sahara, was signed by others, too: Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, and Stokely Carmichael. All of whom, he said, carried the “freedom sound,” a sound Ted said he heard in their music and words. I took this to mean the message, or musical vibration, of the Black Consciousness Movement, of which Ted was very much at the center of in those years in Europe and Africa. I thought again of Tchicai, and asked if Ted would be interested in doing a performance with him. Ted shared some very fond memories of their times together, particularly in Amsterdam, and the Happenings they produced there. Ted could be a spellbinding storyteller — Laura, Vale, Vale’s partner Marian Wallace, and I were held in rapt attention as he wove the tale of those magical times.
It took some doing, but with patience and careful planning, I was eventually able to bring these two giants together in 2001 for what proved to be among the greatest experiences of my life. A full-capacity crowd gathered at the Bird & Beckett bookstore in Glen Park, San Francisco, to hear them perform. The painter Gustavo Ramos Rivera, V. Vale, Al Young, Diane DiPrima, Bruce Conner, and the philosopher Tommy Lott were all in attendance. After the show, Conner walked to the backroom to introduce himself to Ted, “Hi, I’m all of Bruce Conner and no more!” A sort of pun on one of Ted’s earliest books, All of Ted Joans and No More, published by Nude Erections in 1961. They made plans for Conner to contribute to a cadavre exquis that Ted had been adding to for decades by invitation, taking up yards of an old-fashioned spool of butcher paper; Robert Rauschenberg had also been a contributor. Afterwards, we all repaired to Pancho Villa in the Mission District, Ted’s favorite taqueria.
The next year, Ted served as best man at my wedding, with fellow poet David Meltzer officiating as minister. After the ceremony, in the offices of my friend Matt Gonzalez — who, as a member of the Board of Supervisors, had generously donated the use of City Hall — David wrote the word “Poet” where he should have written “Minister” on the official documents. Thus the marriage was illegal in this world, if poetically in perpetuity in another.
The last time I saw Ted was on November 22, 2002. It was on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, where he was to deliver an annual lecture on the subject of his archives housed at the Bancroft Library. On the phone, we had been planning a trip to Haiti, which curiously he intended us to take together without Laura, an unheard-of thing. We continued to discuss it and even mapped out a few prospective dates for our trip. It was during this period that I noticed in Ted’s notebooks that he was drawing Haitian vèvès throughout the pages. One of the last inscriptions he made to me appeared in the book he created with Laura’s drawings and his poetry called Our Thang. Ted drew an elaborate series of vèvès, completely covering the endpapers. Although we came close to leaving for Haiti, more than once a prohibitive political situation would arise there, and our travel plans would have to be postponed.
The following spring an enormous controversy inflamed the international art world, as it was announced that the contents of André Breton’s apartment, and its art collection, were to be auctioned off. The French cultural ministries refused to provide the funds to assure that the collection would remain intact, sparking outrage; protests of various kinds greeted the auctions, some occasionally violent. I received a postcard from a friend visiting Paris with a clipping from Le Monde, noting that Ted had been in the audience witnessing the sale of a portrait he had made of Breton, presented as a gift to his lifelong friend.
A few weeks later I received a call from poet Q.R. Hand. His voice was low and heavy, something was wrong. “I don’t know how to tell you this, man, but I think you should hear it from me.” My heart was already in my throat and I didn’t know why. “It’s about Ted, man. Ted Joans has died.”
My legs went out from under me. I couldn’t keep my balance. Steadying myself, leaning forward on the table in front of me, not knowing what to say, I told Q.R. thanks for letting me know. I didn’t know what else to say.
The following year I planned a memorial at the Koret Auditorium, inviting mutual friends of ours, including Ishmael Reed, Cecil Brown, and Al Young. Laura came and stayed a few days. Ted’s children who lived in California — Daline, Theresa, and Ted, Jr. — also attended, along with their mother Joyce. It was joyful, and celebrated Ted’s life in a way that was uplifting and very much in the spirit of the gifts he shared with all of us. Ishmael, Cecil, and Al shared wonderful stories and recollections, followed by a screening of a short film Ishmael had made of Ted on their tour together in the Netherlands.
Ted’s beauty continues to animate my world each day, and I miss him very much. His marvelous dream surrealized became my own as well. He was my spiritual father, and I love him.
Ted Joans lives!